Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Might & Magic II: Anatomy of Combat

RE: my comment yesterday: Apparently, "roasted peasant" wasn't just a bad pun. This is also on the "safe" square of the map, so every time I "Fly" to this map or flee combat while on it, I end up back here facing mad peasants.

When it comes to combat tactics, it still seems to me that Wizardry--one of the very first CRPGs--did it best (I wrote about it a year ago). Not only were there a lot of things to do in combat (attacking, blocking, casting, fleeing) but the nature of each foe demanded a unique strategy. Moreover, since you couldn't just rest, heal, and regain your spell points immediately after combat, the game required efficiency: you had to save your best spells for the times you really needed them. Every battle was a balance between sacrificing too many hit points and sacrificing too many spells, and every exploration was a balance between mapping just a few more squares and returning to the safety of the surface. Oh, and with quasi-permanent death, battle had real consequences. I felt real fear and tension exploring Wizardry's dungeon.

Might & Magic II, while very similar to Wizardry in combat options, is very different from the earlier game in its overall tactics. First of all, full-party death isn't permanent; your party gets restarted at the last inn if they all die. While it sucks to lose whatever amount of exploration you'd accomplished since that last save, it's not as taking-a-golf-club-to-your-monitor-inducing as having to re-generate an entire party. This translates to a lesser, shall we say, "investment" in combat--with both good and bad consequences.

More important, in MM2, you can rest in almost every square and get all your hit points and spell points restored. There are exceptions, and they add an extra level of tactical difficulty, but they are rare. This means that you might as well throw all your best spells and attacks at every foe. Combat tactics--and I know I've said this before, so I apologize--are about individual battles rather than the accumulation of battles. The question of whether to prolong an expedition and risk losing your progress, or whether to return and save, still applies, though less pressingly once you acquire the "Lloyd's Beacon" spell (see below).

This isn't to say that I turn battle into a cataclysm of fire and lightning for each group of kobolds I encounter. In fact, quite the opposite. While the ability to rest and heal means that I don't have to worry so much about spell points, it also means I don't need to worry so much about hit points. There's no sense in wasting too much time trying to turn a 20% loss of hit points into a 10% loss of hit points when you can rest in a few minutes and get 100% of your hit points restored. Thus, I often CTRL-A my way through battles even if it means taking a bigger hit. It's a lot less effort to type the (r)est key than to meticulously plan tactics against a group of zombies.

To illustrate, let's look at three combats of various difficulty. In the first one, in Corak's Cave, I face a moderately-sized group of zombies and skeletons. The most efficient way to approach this battle would be to fireball the group of non-melee zombies (from G onward) and then for my cleric to cast "Turn Undead" to mop up the skeletons. But it would also take time, and for no better result (it turns out) than to save Bolingbroc 19 hit points and Valstaff 3. So instead, after a couple of manual attacks, I hold down CTRL-A and let the automatic attacks do their work.

I don't regret this, because the next combat puts me face-to-face with a group of "coffin creeps," whose attacks drain all magic points, instantly, from all characters. This means I have to rest and heal right away anyway; it's dangerous to go wandering around with no spell points.

I draw the CTRL-A line, however, at times when I risk killing one of my characters. I don't have "Raise Dead" yet, and that spell carries a risk anyway, so each death requires a trip back to the temple in town--and the dead character gets no experience points from the battle.

This battle is a little tougher. The party is led by two kobold captains--I can brush them aside like ants--but includes five shamans. I know from experience trying to use CTRL-A against them that shamans cast "Paralyze," which not only removes each affected party member from combat but also kills your party if all members are affected. I can't treat them lightly. I'm not terrified of them, and I have no thoughts of fleeing, but I have to make sure my fighters target them and that I hit them with the best spells that I have.

The video shows the result. I target my fighters' attacks on the shamans, taking out most of them, and then eliminate the rest with a lightning bolt from my sorcerer. Fortunately, their speed is slow, so all my characters get an attack before they can start in with their spells. Once the shaman threat is dealt with, I CTRL-A the kobolds and move on.

This last one is much harder, and in fact I lose. I come just shy of losing my entire party. The combat takes place in Sarakin's Mine in Map A2. I've heard that some NPCs are hanging around in here, and while I don't need them, I figured I'd explore. The cave has yielded some decent experience--by the time the video begins I've mapped about half the cave and have amassed about 40,000 experience points from numerous fixed battles with groups of five wraiths each. Now I've come across a door labeled "Friends of Sarakin," and when I enter, I meet tougher undead.

This is the first time I've ever faced either mummies or grim reapers. They sound nasty, so I immediately sit up and prepare for the worst. I've surprised the monsters, which theoretically increases my chances of a successful (h)ide or (r)un. I briefly consider it. Hiding keeps you in the same square and I don't think it works on fixed encounters. Running returns you to the dungeon entrance. I've just cast "Lloyd's Beacon" outside the entrance to this room, so I know I can return if I need to, and I don't want to lose my experience.

Ultimately, I decide to attack. The grim reapers turn out to be the most dangerous enemy, and the game puts me in a bad position by starting them in the rear, where my melee fighters can't attack them. First, I check their spell resistances. I've found a "Storm Wand," which casts "Lightning Bolt," and I've given it to Valstaff, my character with the highest speed (and thus first in every combat). At 00:14, you can see me try it out on the creatures, with no effect to either the mummies or the reapers. Bollocks.

I start concentrating every missile attack I can on the reapers, but shots from three characters barely make a dent in one. They're slow, so they haven't had an attack yet (00:26). My sorcerer is up next. Knowing that "Lightning Bolt" doesn't work, I try "Fireball." I see a little success against the mummies but not the reapers (00:30).

Then it's the grim reapers' turns. Both cast "Fingers of Death" and immediately kill my paladin and barbarian (00:35). The two mummies in melee range are no pushovers either and do devastating damage to my knight and ninja. Last to go is Peta, my cleric, who would normally heal Harry Kari, but I need to at least try "Turn Undead." Not surprisingly on this level of undead, it doesn't work (00:42).

Early in the next round, my archer manages to kill one of the grim reapers, but the mummies continue to do heavy damage and hardly anything affects them. At 01:33, my sorcerer goes down, and if I can't bring him back, I lose my chance at escape from combat. Peta heals him, but then things get serious when my cleric is knocked unconscious (01:57). Although I kill the second reaper seconds later (02:06), I've still got four mummies on the board and no healers. After a moment's consideration, Glendower the sorcerer does the responsible thing and "Time Distorts" me out of combat. I exit the cave, "fly" to Middlegate, and raise my dead. While I'm there, I train Harry Kari up a level and donate at the temple to get the magic and force resistance that the priests confer. Then I cast "Lloyd's Beacon" to return to Sarakin's Mine and test myself against them again. With the priests' protections, the "Fingers of Death" spell bounces off me, but the mummies still overwhelm me through brute force. On a third visit, I have better odds and manage to defeat them:

Whew. This kind of battle is actually quite rare in the game right now. I usually face either enemies I can defeat without much trouble, or those that so clearly outclass me that I don't bother to retry.

A few more thoughts on the resting issue: Might & Magic II could have ramped up the tactical level by including more serious consequences to resting too often. Right now, there are only four, and none of them are consequential enough to worry about:

  1. You risk getting attacked in your sleep. Easily countered with the "Instant Keep" spell, and random attacks aren't that common anyway.
  2. You use a unit of food. But food is cheap and you can carry 40 units. If you could only carry five or six meals, or if each one cost a bundle, it would encourage the player to be a bit more sparing with how often he or she rests.
  3. You age a day, and once you hit 75 years of age, there's a chance your characters might die. My characters are all still 18, though (in contrast to the first game, when they aged four or five years in the first town alone), and I'm sure by the time they're in their 30s, I'll have the "Rejuvenate" spell. Making the aging faster, or eliminating the spell, would encourage more care in the passage of time.
  4. Your NPCs charge for their services. Right now, I'm paying 40 gold pieces per NPC per day, or about a twelfth of what I find in a typical battle. If NPCs charged more (and they do increase their fees as the levels go up), I guess that would make more of a difference.

I would have preferred if the game had really made you stop and think before hitting that "r" button--if it had encouraged to squeeze every step out of each day. Another alternative would have been to only heal half, or a quarter, of your hit points and spell points with each rest. I'm not trying to complain--it's exactly like Might & Magic I, after all, and I didn't complain there--but I sometimes miss the nail-biting nature of tactical combat in Wizardry.

To close for the night, let me recap what I've actually done today. I started exploring outdoors, mapping what I could, noting places that I had to return to or where combat proved impossible at my level. On Map C2, where Middlegate resides, I found Corak's Cave. I decided to explore it even though I knew I would have to come back once I had Corak's soul (the statue in Atlantium had said this). Sure enough, when I got to the chamber marked "Corak's Crypt," something took the "Admit 8" pass a zombie had given me in the dungeon below Sandsobar (see yesterday's posting).

At this point, I made the mistake of turning to have a look behind me, and when I faced the same direction again:

Lesson learned: next time, plow on forward. Now I have to return to Sandsobar and get another pass. But the visit to Corak's Cave was not in vain, as I did find "Lloyd, of Lloyd's Beacon fame," and was granted his extremely useful spell.

Also near Middlegate, I encountered this mysterious pegasus, and got a side quest to figure out his or her name.

Exploring outdoors is significantly different than in Might & Magic I, and I'll cover that in detail tomorrow. For now, I'll note that the graphics are much better, and the automap is rather lovely:

I think I'll take a screen shot of each map and assemble them together in one master map at the end.


  1. Probably a dumb question, but what's the significance of "Protection" in the upper-right corner, and why does the color of the checkerboard under it change?

  2. Heh, I must laught at the picture of the Mad Peasants. Seems MM2 has som real choices&consequences. :-)

    Regarding resting, does MM2 have a day/night cycle? If so, maybe you could do what I do when playing the Gold Box games - only rest once a day (unless you are so weak that you must rest).

    I'm currently playing MM1 (it seems to never end) and it is a bit frustrating to see the much improved graphics, more characters and more combat options of MM2. Since I last played MM2 20+ years ago I had forgotten about the backstabs and critical hits, for example.

  3. Neat, the outdoors automap looks almost as good as its VGA succesors'.

  4. If you get the spell Clarvoyance, the protection map turns into a mini overhead map showing you the terrain.

    Darn it. Seeing all your posts on this game made me relive the awesome time I had at 16 playing MM2. And unlike some games that didn't hold up with age (Like Phantasie 1) MM2 is still goddamn fun. I started the game last night and got to level 5 with my party. Frantically saving after almost every battle, I've got a Knight, Ninja, 2 Clerics and 2 Sorcerers.

    This is kind of a surprise to me since I just completed Dragon Age 2 (and loved it), and makes me realise that modern CRPG's have mostly abondoned Might and magic style gameplay. That kinda makes me sad cos I do so love it.

  5. I've been replaying my way through Wizardry VII lately, but after seeing your posts on MM2, I decided to grab the M&M 6-pack of GoG and give them a whirl. I couldn't get MM2 to work properly, so I jumped straight to 3.

    Having been immersed in the Wizardry combat, it was a bit of a jarring transition to switch to a system where the consequences of failure felt so much lower. As you say, in Wizardry, the results of each individual combat directly impact how hard the next combat will probably be (spells left, stamina, HP, etc). In MM3, I haven't really gotten to a point yet where I've felt that I need to put much thought into my combat tactics other than when to have my Cleric occasionally cast First Aid.

    It's not to say that the MM system isn't fun; just that it feels a little shallow at the moment. Perhaps as I get deeper into the game that will change, but for now I still much prefer the depth of the Wizardry-style combat.

  6. If you're using Dosbox for MM2, try typing "loadfix mm2" instead of just "mm2", that works for me.

  7. Long time reader, first time commenter: love the blog!

    @joel: I, too, picked up the MM 6 pack on GoG. Running MM2 as an Administrator worked for me, so you will probably want to try that.

  8. I love this blog too.

  9. Good God is it hard not for me to explode in a blaze of spoilers.

  10. Very much enjoying this blog from New Zealand.

    Keep it up!

  11. Excellent analysis. Makes me want to give Wizardry I a retry. I played VII a bit in the 90s, and tried I, IV, V and VI - only the last hooked me, but I played it all the way through. It didn't have the semi-permanent death aspect though, and it has this annoying thing that you couldn't see the walls until they were close enough, and were shown the horizon instead. Confusing. Good game all the same.


  12. When I said you should do a 'Let's Play' type posting for the game, my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek. The internet needs a universally accepted emoticon for tongue-in cheek... :(P) maybe? Anyway, no, your blog is perfecto the way it is, don't change a thing! Well, except for...


    Back to a previous concept and subject however- it has only been lately that I have discovered the concept of "walking dead" and "unbeatable" adventure games. Now, had I realized that Infocom had deliberately made some of their games unbeatable- and that the walking dead "ending" was more common than not, I would never have wasted my money on their games.

    Wasted. I spit on them for doing that. I considered it then, and consider it now, bad programming practice and bad game practice to send someone into a situation where the game is unbeatable and not only not warn them that this has happened, but be glad that it happened. It's despicable. Repulsive. I am sure that most everyone here will disagree with me on this subject (especially those who play IF games), but luckily in this case I am not worried about that because all those people are simply wrong. :)

    Anyway, I continue to love your blog and wait everyday for a new blog posting! Vive le blog!

  13. @CRPGAddict: It is not coming to come into your zone of focus for a LOOONG time, but I think this is a good place for a shout-out to a game I just got.
    Swords & Sorcery: Underworld feels an awful lot like a direct descendant of MM2. Its available from GamersGate (which I love) for $20... and it supports an Independant developer.

    The graphics suck by Oblivion's standards, but it is so hard to find good turn-based CRPGs these days!

  14. It's true that constant resting removes any sense of realism from a game, but for me, restricting that just seems more annoying than fun.

    I don't like to re-fight battles. Oh, once or twice, for the boss fights, is fine. But if I have to fight a series of battles without resting, and then end up failing, so I need to fight them all over again, I'm likely just to give up the game.

    It's just not fun for me to repeat such things, especially immediately after I've already fought them once. And if games aren't fun, what use are they? Well, I know this is just personal taste (I don't like rogues much, either). But there's a very fine line between challenging and annoying.

    But since we're all different, I don't know how a game gets the balance right for everyone. A game that's challenging for one person is likely to be too tough for another - and too easy for someone else.

    I think maybe plentiful options are the only way to manage this. Make restrictions on resting optional, along with the need for food and water, the rate of healing and mana recovery, and anything else that a game developer can reasonably manage.

    There's no right or wrong on this sort of thing, just individual preference. So if you want to appeal to more people, wouldn't you make more things optional?

    Of course, I tend to prefer free-form games, anyway. I want to make my own decisions, rather than follow meekly where a game developer insists that I go. I'm sure this is just personal preference, too.

  15. Lame Brain - Corwin at the RPG Watch was impressed by Sword and Sorcery, and has recommended it to me. Graphics, as stated, are poor for MM2's standards; when I first checked it out it was around Wizardry 1's level, with some oddball 3D models floating in there.

    I never tried it myself, as I'm currently focusing in on Planescape Torment and DDO.

    As far as MM2 goes, it was mt first MM game, and probably one of the best cRPGs released in the 1980's. Though IIRC you get the roasted peasant scene whether you eat a roasted peasant or not, though I'll admit it's been a long while. Time to fire up DOSBox!

    Sound, if you didn't realize or know, is the same as in King's Bounty, also by New World Computing (the original KB, not the modern remake which is a great game in it's own right). I played many games of the original KB, it is simply outstanding to me. While not an RPG, it's well worth looking up.

  16. @WCG:
    I find myself curious: About what age are you? Were you playing these kind of games in the late 80s/ early 90s?

    I am curious because in my lifetime I have watched the forgiveness of games dwindle. Not just CRPGS, but all games. Gamers of today seem to be more impatient with games that lack friendly features like Respawns and Save Games.

  17. Lame Brain, I'm 60, and yes, I started playing computer games in the late 1980's.

    Still - obviously - I wasn't a kid even then. I had more patience than I do now (I remember enjoying mapping some games on graph paper), but not the patience kids often seem to have.

    As I say, I've got even less patience now. I've been retired for five years, and I seem to have far less time now than when I was working. And since there are a LOT of games out there - especially if you consider old games I can re-play - I don't really need to play something that annoys me.

  18. Addict's silence over a week can only mean two things: either he's busy at work again... or we'll see a WON posting for MM2 any moment now ;)

  19. I've just finished reading from the beginning and I might just read through it again.

    I'm also inspired to resume my Wizardry I game of six years on my old XT, then perhaps Might & Magic or The Magic Candle.

    Great stuff!

  20. Addicts absence for over a week could also mean his wife has found out about this blog and now he can't do it anymore... That's likely what will happen when (oh yes, I said it) she finds out about it. And we'll never know- he'll just have vanished from our lives... :(

    I hope that hasn't/won't happen for a long long time.

  21. I was actually half expecting an April Fools post explaining that he had to close the blog due to his wife finding out...


  23. Sorry, everyone. I have been traveling in South America this week and my hosts have kept me too busy for game playing, plus my Internet access has been spotty. I'll be returning over the weekend and hope to have some new postings by early next week.

    Incidentally, I did tell my wife about the blog, just before I left, although I haven't given her the address yet.

  24. @CRPG Addict - I'm glad you decided to tell her. I hope she reacted well and that you both can share this experience. Very happy for you that you don't have to hide it anymore.

  25. Maybe a team post! Weren't you going to backtrack and try the Dungeons of Daggorath port sometime and she recognized the game?

  26. Sweet! CRPG Addict. I'm guessing you cryptically yelled to your wife over your shoulder as you boarded that small, dust-choked, weather worn bird on the runway, "Oh, by the way, I have a blog. Other girls were mentioned in a New Orleans post [Nelson Muntz HA-HA]."

    But seriously, I hope you had a fun time and that your wife is OK with the blog.

    PS: I have been playing Final Fantasy III again and aside from lack of dialogue options and some equipment (as pertains to character class usefulness) railroading, I am sure you will find it addicting in 1990. The only complaints with it I have had is I hate managing a limited inventory and I am at a grinding session (but only the third and the other two didn't last maybe an hour).

  27. Okay, guys. Chill out. I just told her about it; we're not going to build our marriage around it.

  28. Dammit, of course the updates slow to a trickle right before we hit Moraff's World, one of the few games on the list I have any familiarity with! Well, Ok, I played the sequel off a shareware CD, but still! I was looking forward to that! *sighhh* Hope your real life is going well at least!

  29. I bet he went to Britain for the wedding.

  30. How do we know he's not the prince, himself? After all, what do we really know about him? :)

  31. I must say the this is one of the greatest blogs I've found. Thank you.

  32. Thanks, Alex! I hope I can keep it up.

  33. The ability to rest anytime and almost everywhere, and totally recover all HP and spell points is rather lame. I liked how Demon's Winter did it, by only regaining a certain amount of HP and SP, and more if resting at an inn. OTOH Demon's Winter didn't have monsters that drained all your spell points...

    In the end I guess it's up to the player. Personally I prefer to be conservative with my characters' spell points and try not to rest more than once every day. Instead of wasting large amounts of spells points on Fireballs I usually use Paralyze and Web instead, or use one of the many items that cast Fireball and Lighting Bolt.

  34. Greets.

    So in MM2 combats, you cannot shoot fireballs/ arrows in an FPS style, as in the sequels?
    Is it strictly turn-based a'la Wizardry, B.Tale?

    Do my first row of characters can (be) hit only with close range weapons?

    Do I remember well, that terrain (e.g.:narrow corridors) can force unusual party formation for battles?

    Ninjas backstab worthy?
    Barbarians useless?

    Thanx for thy attention, have fun.

    1. That is correct. In MM1 and MM2, combat is all turn-based. It's not just the "first row" that can be hit with melee weapons, but rather anyone with a check-mark next to his name. The size of the room and the angle of approach determines who starts with a check-mark. Narrow corridors will mean that only the first two have the mark unless the enemy "infiltrates" the ranks.

      I thought barbarians were competent and strong fighters. I don't remember how well the ninja assassination attacks worked, though.

  35. Quote: "there a lot of things to do in combat (attacking, blocking, casting, fleeing)"

    This got me thinking. Are there any games in which blocking/defending is a constructive strategy, rather than just the default when you don't have anything better to do? It often seems like it's in there as a pass, or at best a very slight bump to defense. I'd enjoy seeing an interpretation where blocking was a necessary strategy sometime. For instance, maybe with creatures that gaze attack (medusa, basilisk, etc.) it's not just enough to have a mirror, but you have do defend and wait it out while they do themselves in, which possibly takes several rounds if they have multiple types of attacks, or if they're mixed with other critters. I can imagine other scenarios where you need a front-row shield wall for some reason and only the back row gets to play offense. I know some action/fighting games sometimes work in a maneuver that's a combination of block and counterstrike. Seems like an equivalent (block to absorb energy and re-use it?) could have been worked in to a turn-based game somewhere.

    1. You make a good point. Theoretically, in Wizardry and its derivatives, blocking adds slightly to the defense score and makes it less likely that an enemy's attack will connect. Thus, it's a good option for a character who is very low on hit points and just needs to survive the round.

      The problem is, it's hard to really see the effects of a block and thus it often feels like a wasted action. The documentation is also usually nebulous about a block's actual mathematical consequences for the defense score.

      I agree that the blocking/parrying dynamic could really be improved.

    2. The only tabletop RPG I can think of with really good non-attack, non-magic options that I've seen used a lot is GURPS.

      Aim a ranged weapon: Gives you +1 on attack. This can be huge, given that it is a 3d6 system, so has a rather steep bell curve. Often well worth waiting one round to make an attack.

      It also has All out attack (No defence the next round), committed attack (-2 on doge or parry), and then the same for defence.

      Even there, I almost never see the defensive options used. What you really need is some form of riposte mechanic, that leads into special attacks (Better chance to hit say, or no chance of parry), or that allow you to set up a disarm attempt or such. The hard part would be if you made them good enough avoiding wait chains where two people stand there and wait for the other to take a swing.

  36. I would like to see a gane which has Pool of Radiance's guard, you attack me or somebody near me I'll hit you.

    One game though that does a bit of good with the defense action is Etrian Odessy, at least in 2 if you're Protector guards a character he'll take the hit for another character you want to protect, and Protectors have excellent defense. Its interesting to have a character built all around defending.

    1. The majority of Final Fantasy games have an ability and/or class that lets a character take hits for a low-HP ally. It's a staple jRPG ability.

    2. I think it was called "White Knight". And no, it's not really a staple JRPG ability. For one thing, the-game-that-must-not-be-named does not have that feature.

    3. Final Fantasy VII has it as a materia. I'm playing through it for the first time with Mara right now, and I have a materia on cloud that lets him randomly take hits for other characters since he has the most HP.

  37. During our current hiatus, I’m enjoying a trip back through old posts, even those I had read before… like this series, on one of my favorite games. I still enjoy it today, more than many similar games since, and it’s interesting to me to consider why.

    The ease of most combats is a plus, to me - there’s a potato chip/Skinner box feel to it, with random sizes and difficulties. More tactical games feel very slow, and while I enjoy them, I don’t stick with them for too long. I love MM3/4/5, but the combat there has gone too far in this direction - it’s too fast, too insubstantial.

    I think you could get back some of the excitement of a press-your-luck game like Wizardry without ruining that precious feel of the individual combats, by adding an increasing percentage of XP bonus per fight until you rest. If you did this, you’d have to rebalance the level requirements… and, I think, give a success percentage on trap disarmament.

    Defending, per an old comment above, has too high an opportunity cost in this kind of game. You have to raise its utility. One option is to block telegraphed attacks, but that would not work well with dozens of enemies in a fight. Another is recovering some hp/sp, which would free up your cleric to experiment with other spells.

    1. Agreed. The combat system in MM1 and MM2 was a lot of fun, and not as dependent on a Wizardry base as a lot of games inspired by Wizardry. I just wish the game didn't make it so easy to rest, heal all injuries, and restore all spell points.


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