Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dungeon Master: Back in the Dungeon Again

I owe my life to a relentless door closing mechanism.
Here's an important lesson learned for the month of November: I cannot play multiple games over the course of a week, offering at least one, sometimes two, postings per day, without getting so far behind in my work that I have to swear off CRPGs for an entire week just to catch up. I suspect that my regular readers--if I still have any left--would prefer a moderate pace of one posting every two days to this feast-or-famine trap I seem to have fallen into.

Getting back into Dungeon Master after a week off was tough, but it was even tougher coming up with enough material to make a blog posting. What did I say about the game a week ago? "Pretty awesome?" It's amazing how fast one's opinion can change. Somewhere in the midst of mapping Level 4 or 5, I realized that this was probably as good as it was going to get. If five levels haven't offered me any NPCs, plot points, interesting vistas, big bosses, or puzzles involving anything more advanced than a pressure plate, probably the next five aren't, either. It's taking me about 3-4 hours per level, but getting a little longer on each one. Based on trudodyr's depressing revelation last week that the dungeon has 14 levels, I suspect I have another--ulp--30-40 hours of gameplay left on this one.

This is the problem with Dungeon Master: it's all style and no substance; an endless slog through the same corridors fighting the same monsters. From a gameplay perspective, it's great; I only wish this engine had been used by Might & Magic or even Wizardry. From an RPG perspective, it's...well, barely an RPG. Granted, Wizardry didn't have a lot of story to it, either, but at least it had the decency to be only 10 levels, and about half the size of Dungeon Master's labyrinths.

Another huge level down.

All right. Enough whining. Let's get to the new stuff.

In the comments to my first posting, reader tekeli-li told me about something that I can't decide whether it's a "feature" or a "bug" in the game: if you lure monsters into doorways and press the "close door" switch, the door keeps bashing down on them until they die or flee. If you keep attacking the monsters while this is happening, they don't last very long. When I first read the comment, I thought it was an amusing little diversion that I probably wouldn't use much, so as not to rob my characters of the skill bonuses associated with killing monsters. Well, little did I know. Without the door-closing trick, I never would have made it through the endless armies of giant worms on Level 4. My characters still haven't recovered from that experience.

The tactics of combat and magic have forced a revision of how I see my characters. I was regarding my first character, Leyla, as primarily a ninja, and giving her lots of stuff to throw when enemies first appear. But once the enemies close in, it took too long to switch to melee weapons. So now I'm trying to develop the ninja levels of my two rear characters and the spellcasting levels of my two forward ones. Based on the comments I'm receiving, though, I pretty much need to regard all the characters as generalists and have each of them get levels in all four classes.

The only way we know how to look for secret doors is bash face-first into the wall. I picture the monsters laughing at me.

Secret doors continue to annoy me a bit. I'm paranoid about missing them, so I've taken to bashing every wall--my characters taking damage while doing so--just to make sure there isn't one there.

Leyla reacts predictably to a giant worm's bite.

Happily, Dungeon Master defies the conventions of most CRPGs by refusing to include poison. No! Just kidding! Wouldn't that be disappointing? Actually, pretty much everything poisons my characters starting on Level 4: worms, flying snake things, the occasional trap. Curing it involves mixing up a batch of antidote which, to be fair, increases my character's priest skills, so it's not all bad--just a bit annoying, as poison always is.

Ah, the fabled Ekkhard Cross.

The biggest annoyance in the game continues to be a lack of information about the different pieces of equipment I find. It was bad enough when I had to try to figure out the relative merit of different weapons and armor, but now I'm finding magic items--or, at least, what I think are magic items--such as an "Ekkhard Cross" and a "Gem of Ages." If you look at the screen shot above, the game provides you a way to look at your items and get information about them, but all you learn is the name and the weight. What does it do? There's a whole bunch of blank space under the weight where they could put this information, but they don't. I just have to stick it on a random character and hope it does something. This is pretty much unforgivable.

Cleaning up after a kill.

Missile weapons are pretty useful, but picking up missile weapons after hurling them all in combat is getting pretty annoying. You have to click on each item on the ground, then open the character portrait, stick the item in the proper inventory slot, close the character portrait, and pick up the next item.

Dungeon Master, I should mention, features missile weapons like bows and slings, but it also requires you to have associated ammunition. Games are divided on this issue. The Might & Magic folks just assume you can pick up arrows anywhere, I guess, and thus provide you with unlimited ammo. In Baldur's Gate, you can buy 40 arrows for a single gold piece and yet you still have to buy them. Ultima doesn't track arrows; The Elder Scrolls does. It's a trade-off between realism and avoiding the annoyance of inventory micromanagement. I can't say for sure what side I fall on.

I don't fall on the side of Dungeon Master, which requires you to have ammunition but only gives you five slots to hold it and doesn't stack like objects. That means each character can shoot or throw only five times before having to go pick up his stuff or switch to a melee weapon. Any realism it gains by doing this, it sacrifices by having your ammo never break; all arrows are re-usable.

And that's about the size of it. Here's me fighting some sort of reaper or something:

We must always be conscious of the effects of our moods on our enjoyment of things. I've been up for close to 30 hours straight and played my last round of Dungeon Master after writing 20 pages on the differences between ethnography and phenomenology. It's possible that tomorrow, in a refreshed mood, the game will regain its former level of addiction and enjoyment. If not, I may take a detour to Faery Tale Adventure, but have no fear: I shall finish Dungeon Master simply because it seems like a game that a CRPG addict ought to finish.


  1. I hope you were in a bad mood and will get back to it more in shape, as DM is indeed an awesome game, proven by a dedicated cult following. Of course, do not expect NPCs or an involved story, you'll be disappointed : it's strengths reside in the puzzle/mapping fun teamed with effective gameplay. The puzzle/levels are definitely going to get tougher/more interesting in the second half of the game, although the whole DM is quite linear and in my opinion is almost only a rehearsal for CSB, which is the real thing. I've read with interest your linear/non-linear rpgs article (i have some comments for that too when I have time) and CSB should more than enough satisfy you in that aspect, as well as tax your puzzle/mapping skills to the limit (but in a fun way, not like WizIV).

    You've inspired me to settle on a replay of both in a row, and I've just arrived to the RA level (7 in your numbering). Up to there it was mostly training and introduction, the real fun starts on next level (8).

    As for fake walls : how do you play the game by the way? The CSBWin port of the original code is probably the best way to go today. In it, as in the Amiga and some other versions, you can knock on walls and see if they make a sound, instead of blindly bumping everywhere...

    You really shouldn't need doors for worms, just get them in an at least 2x2 room and turn around them and hack them on the back. This also applies for any monster that actually has a back.

    Apart from that I totally agree with you about the non-information given for items - it is really a design flaw. You'll also see a lot of good but badly implemented/programmed ideas, for example the "stun" attack on the mace which doesn't do anything significant and is useless in actual practice. And it's true missile weapons are tedious.

  2. FYI, there are some walls with very small buttons on them that are easy to overlook, they're not too hard to notice, one you know what they look like. Oh, and you're not going to lose the game just because you miss one of the rare invisible walls.

    Now may main point, why all the mapping? Unless you actually *like* making games last twice as long by including tedious tasks...

    The thing is that 99% of dungeons in 99% of the games can be solved by using the "left-hand rule" - a little trick I learned as a boy. You can try it out in a real-life corn maze if you like. All you have to do is keep touching the wall beside you with your left hand. You will exhaustively navigate the maze *without* getting lost or running around in circles. Just look at the maps you've already created and follow the left wall - you'll find everything without fail.

    The only thing (and these are rare) that can thwart this maze navigation technique is a maze with an island in the middle of it. But even these kinds of levels are easy to detect (i.e. you're in a big room and you just keep walking around the edges without getting to the room in the centre).

    Something else I used to do in Dungeon Master specifically, was to use visual breadcrumbs. You can collect a ton of junk in DM, just drop it at strategic intersections to mark which passageways are long dead ends, or ways to get back somewhere (like to water, or one of the two monster re-spawn sites). This can also come in handy in the rare places with spinners (I hate those things).

    Georges is right when he says the game has zip for NPC interaction (ok, there will be the potential for *some* much later on), but is mostly about puzzle solving. What I thought was clever game design 20 years ago was the fact that the game teaches you how to solve puzzles, before giving you anything too tricky.

    While DM changed the course of crpg history, you've hit its faults right on the head. Not enough item info, ranged attack gameplay, virtually no npcs, no "role-playing", invisible wall detection, and its linear nature are all things that could be addressed. Oddly enough, I don't think I ever missed having a store or a merchant in this game. When I think about it, hauling up piles of stuff I can't use every half hour to sell in town does get pretty tedious.

    p.s. If you figured out that the "left-hand rule" would work just as well as a "right-hand rule" give yourself your choice of a blue star or a Dora sticker. ;-)

  3. I'm also sorry to hear that you're not enjoying yourself currently. Everything George says is correct, of course - the door tactic is not ideal for the worms, due to their strength and poisonousness.
    DM is the archetypal dungeon crawler with NPCs, plot points and vistas taking a back seat - and while this can't be everyone's cup of tea, I'm not sure you're treating it very fairly by censuring its alleged lack of monster variety?
    Granted, the level you just slogged through is probably the most uniform and repetitive in the whole game, but I think you've only seen about one third of the game's creatures so far.
    Concerning those nondescript items - would it make your playthrough more gratifying if we would supply slight spoilers as to their effect (they're very minimal anway)? This lack of helpful information beyond an item's name and weight was certainly something that annoyed me back in the time.

  4. PS: It might be worth dipping your toes into Faery Tale Adventures, as it is a radically different CRPG that could give you a welcome opportunity to eschew some of DM's shortcomings for a while.

  5. I'm guessing you missed my comment about there being a spell to see through walls ...

  6. I kind of like when games don't give me stats for weapons and armor and I have to go by what sounds and looks better/sharper. With magic items such as amulets and stuff that's pretty bad, though. An 'identify' spell wouldn't be much to ask.

  7. Great to see you back! I've being playing through Pool of Radiance for the first time in the meantime. Fewer posts more regularly as you suggest would be fine with me.

    Regarding DM you've pretty much highlighted the reasons I've never stuck with it - I think it was a great design for the time and without it other games I like would probably never have been made but I find it too frustrating. DM reminds me of when I saw the first screenshots for the new 16bit atari St and amiga computers and all the possibilities they seemed to offer! Faerytale adventure was another one of those showcase games (on the Amiga anyway). Not sure the dos version will be so pretty though.

  8. I agree that lack of info on items is a horrible, horrible design choice. But it's no more egregious here than in many other games of the era. When I played through the Bard's Tale a few years back, I looked up online what the items did. Even having an item identified in game only told you the title, after all. What the hell is Kael's Axe? Fin's Flute? I just paid Garth to tell me these things' names and leave it at that? How do I know he's not simply making them up?

    I say you should give yourself leeway to utilize the internet to correct design flaws where they make the game less enjoyable.


  9. Maybe a compromise would be to do as trudodyr said, and let CRPGaddict ask us from time to time what certain items do, maybe restricting it to magical items only. It wouldn't have the chance of actually spoiling unwanted information by looking at a FAQ...

    I'm saying magic items only because as Helm said, it's not too hard to figure out quickly which weapons hit harder and armor is generally a no-brainer too (apart from a few exceptions you should be able to guess by yourself, like mithril, weight is a good indicator - the heavier the better). However, short of actually decompiling the assembly code, there's no clear way in the game to understand what the gem of ages actually does - which is a good effect by the way, but almost totally transparent to the player.

  10. Wow... I find it funny that all the DM fans refuse to accept that he may find the game a little less than playable/fun/best game ever made. Can't wait to read their reaction to the final GIMLET score.

    As far as impressions go, it seems like an older game framework (definitely Wizardry-inspired) implemented on a newer platform, but largely left unchanged in execution.

    If I try out a game these days, I quit when it starts to feel like work. A good game makes you WANT to spend time playing it, and that the actual time spent is forgotten because you're just too into it. This is sounding way more like a "slog"...

    Anyway, good luck finishing up on DM. If I were you, I'd only switch to another game when you're done with DM. I'd call it a good chance you wouldn't feel like picking it up again.

  11. @Adamantyr
    I don't think anyone here has claimed that DM was the best game ever, but playing it can certainly still be fun today, not only for nostalgics.

    It should also be quite apparent that the GIMLET system is about as well-suited to DM as it will be to Diablo and other action-centric titles that are light on the classical RPG elements.

    Having said that, I would very much advise you to form your own impressions of this title instead of relying on CRPGAdddict's protocol before recommending against or in favour of it.

  12. Personally, I very much liked DM when it came out for what it was: The best "dungeon simulator" available then. At least on my Amiga ;-)

    I never was into Rogue-likes and, honestly, DM feels a bit like one in that it doesn't create a whole world to explore (which is why *I* play CRPGs) but tries to specialize in some "limited" space. The way it does it is what makes it special and a well-deserved success back then.

    However, that being said I *was* a bit disappointed about the lack of plot, NPCs etc. back then and always hoped that FTL would produce a sequel addressing all that.
    Funnily, FTL dishonored their name ("Faster Than Light") by letting Origin (thanks to Blue Sky Productions, later renamed to Looking Glass Technologies) capture the flag - in the form of "Ultima Underworld".
    It not only had better, more immersive tech (not surprisingly) but also much more scope, more options and way better level design (mostly thanks to its engine).
    Some could argue that UU is what DM should have been in the first place, but, really, this is unfair. DM is the large stepping stone that made real-time dungeon crawling in a CRPG plausible. It's a very important piece of history and IMHO(!) The Addict should slog through it - and look forward to UU... ;-)

    DM2, on the other hand, is perhaps the first "retro-CRPG" when it came out three years after the first UU...

  13. Great comments on this one. Thanks everyone. A few responses:

    Georges, thanks for the idea on the worms. I'll try it if I encoutner them in a room like that.

    A couple of you mentioned the ability to knock on fake walls. The problem is, this requires you to turn and face the wall, which is an extra step. Since the game allows you to shuffle left and right, it's easier just to bump into them, as it saves half the keyboard commands and doesn't require reaching for the mouse. The downside, obviously, is that you take a little damage. I realize (as Bill says) that finding every secret door is not vital to winning the game, but I just hate missing stuff.

    Bill, I do enjoy mapping, but I agree that it's not strictly necessary in this game. There aren't any "islands" that I've discovered so far where mapping would fail. I didn't map Level 2 for that reason, but...I don't just feels wrong not to map. The breadcrumbs are a goo didea if it gets old.

    Trudodry & Georges, no spoilers of that nature, thanks. If it wasn't available to the original players, I don't want it. I'll just continue to be annoyed.

    Pladio, I did see your previous message about the spell to see through walls, but I haven't found the spell in-game yet, so I feel like it will be cheating to use it.

    JS, The Bard's Tale at least allows you to gauge the relative worth of weapons by their retail value. That's impossible in DM with no stores.

    Calibrator, I do remember Ultima Underworld, and you can definitely feel DM's influence on it. It's just too bad the level designs don't seem to change in DM, whereas in UU, every level was unique.

  14. Heh, heh. I wondered how you were playing these games - and posting about them - faster than I could get them read. Honestly, I'm so far behind on everything, I can't get here every day (not even close).

    So don't crash and burn by trying to do too much. We'll appreciate the posts that much more when they're less frequent, I suspect (not that I want you to deliberately slow down, either).

    Regarding the gameplay, I get really bored with this kind of dungeon-crawler after awhile. I love this kind of game (I never played this one, though), but I could never stick it out until the end. And endless slog of combat is fun for awhile, but not long.

  15. So I'm trying to play the game (Amiga version) for the first time and follow your posts as I do some progress. I'm also mapping everything and agree with most of your comments --the difference being that I'm not into throwing things at monsters, don't feel like going and getting the items back every time. I've just reached Level 4 and enjoying the game so far! I opted for a two-characters team though, I don't like taking care of too many people, hope the decision will not reveal as counter-productive.

    1. You probably won't have much problem. I don't recall that throwing things ever did significant damage; certainly, if you can get by without having to pick up a bunch of stuff after every battle, you should try it. You can increase ninja skills by fighting unarmed.

  16. I suddently got a random idea about finding passable walls: You can throw something at each wall and I assume it would go through if the wall is passable or bounce to the ground if not?

    1. I think that would work, but it really wouldn't save any time over turning and clicking on them.

  17. Ouch, these monotonous dungeon crawlers kept me from falling in love with rpgs in my youth. I play them for the immersion, the story, and the task of getting xp to build your character. The "technical" side of these games is not appealing enough for me on their own.


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