Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Game 57: Pool of Radiance (1988)

Pool of Radiance
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1988 for DOS and Commodore 64; 1989 for Apple II, Macintosh, PC-88, and PC-98; 1990 for Amiga and Sharp X1, 1991 for NES
Date Started: 31 May 2011
I only ever played about eight or ten sessions of pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, and those were enough for me. On paper, there's no reason I shouldn't love it. I've played hundreds of hours of D&D-themed computer games. I love fantasy novels and fantasy movies. I really enjoy reading D&D rulebooks and modules. I just don't like playing with a real dungeon master and real players.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, and these are the best theories I can come up with:

  • Pen-and-paper roleplaying takes too damned long. By the time you get to the location, get settled, open the chips, pour the drinks, get out the paperwork, roll characters for the new players, set up the campaign, and generally stop screwing around, hours have gone by. You can easily spend half a dozen sessions getting through a simple module.
  • Because you're playing with other people, you can't just get up and leave whenever you want. And you have to mesh your schedule with theirs. There's no suddenly deciding to play at 01:00 when you can't sleep.
  • It's tough to find a talented DM. If he's too imaginative, the game feels more like he's telling a story than you're playing. If he's too lenient, there's no challenge. If he's too inflexible, say goodbye to your character.
  • There are a million rules and calculations, and the game comes to a standstill every five or six rounds as you roll dice and try to figure out whether your saving throw really applies to this particular use of poison or whatever.
  • If you don't have three or four friends who like D&D, you end up playing with strangers. If you do have three or four friends who like D&D, you start to wonder about the choices you've made.

For all these reasons, despite its long history as a paper game, D&D has always struck me as a natural computer-based game system. A computer can do the calculations. You don't need friends with a computer. You can play with your computer any time you want. Your computer is an impartial DM. The only thing lacking with CRPGs over regular RPGs is a certain amount of open-endedness and flexibility. I can't suddenly decide to abandon Baldur's Gate and stalk off towards Silverymoon. But many CRPGs offer worlds that are enormous if not boundless, and this is usually good enough for me.

The game's first quest.

Pool of Radiance isn't the first D&D adaptation for the computer. Wikipedia says that was the PLATO-based dnd, followed by the PDP-10-based Dungeon, two handheld games from Mattel, and an Intellivision game. To a lesser extent, of course, practically ever fantasy CRPG listed on this blog is a D&D adaptation--just not an officially-licensed one. But Pool of Radiance was the first true CRPG adaptation of the specific D&D rules. (Heroes of the Lance, released the same year, was a side-scrolling action game.) It showed that D&D-style gameplay, character development, NPCs, and tactics could be adapted to the computer, and it introduced the idea of the "campaign setting" to CRPGs; games don't have to be direct sequels to each other to be set in the same world. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are all set in the same realm as Eye of the Beholder, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights, and once you know the geography, races, magics, religions, monsters, and politics of one game, you can use that knowledge in others.

None of this would be particularly interesting if the gameplay didn't work, but a few hours with Pool of Radiance confirms what I remember: this is an awesome game. It has a great plot, an extensive game world, and a lot of lore. It is tactically challenging and reasonably fast-paced. There are a few things not to like--sparse first-person graphics and a tiresome healing process among them--but they're certainly sufferable.

The Gold Box series perfects SSI's tactical combat system.

Part of the game's charm is the back story, which is satisfying in its own modesty. You're not out to save the world or become a god or anything. Rather, your job is to help restore a ruined city called Phlan, a minor port on the Moonsea. Once prosperous, it was overrun by monsters a few hundred years ago and fell into disrepair. But descendants of its old inhabitants have now reclaimed it, set up a City Council, hired guards, and walled off a "civilized" section, and they are now soliciting for mercenary bands to start cleaning out the monster-inhabited sections of the city.

An advertisement for mercenaries, from the Adventurer's Journal.

One of the satisfying things about replaying this game in the Internet age is that I can finally see where the Moonsea is, relative to other lands of the Forgotten Realms (technically called "Faerûn"). The Forgotten Realms Wiki has a full map, which I've included below along with some annotations as to the (rough) relative locations of certain games.

You begin by creating a party of six characters from all six core D&D races (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, halfling), both sexes, nine alignments, and four classes (cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief). Normally, I would set out to create a set of characters that I could use throughout the four "Gold Box" games, but a somewhat clumsy implementation of the D&D rules in this first game means that I'll probably create a new set of characters for the next game, Curse of the Azure Bonds. First, there are no paladins or rangers in this game. Second, non-human races have level maximums and I have to make sure they aren't lower than the maximum level in the game. Third, there are maximum levels in the game, ranging from Level 6 for wizards and clerics to Level 9 for thieves. But these are level maximums, not experience maximums, so it makes sense to use multi-classed characters, thus ensuring that you never have the infuriating experience of not earning any more experience.

Thus, my party:

  • Octavianus: chaotic good male human fighter (possibly to dual to cleric later)
  • Karnov: neutral male dwarf fighter/thief
  • Lame Brain: neutral good male elf fighter/magic user
  • Duskfire: lawful good female [sorry about that man, but I needed another female, and frankly it sounds like a female's name] half-elf fighter/magic user
  • Zink: lawful neutral male half-elf fighter/cleric
  • Koren: neutral good female human cleric (possibly to dual to fighter later)

This leaves no halfling, but they suck at everything but thievery and I don't recall thieves playing a large role in this game.

Octavianus, I hope that works for you.

As you create your character, you get to select from a number of heads and bodies to create your character portrait. Most of the portrait choices look pretty dumb, and I think this is the only Gold Box game to include them. You also select from various colors and styles to create your character icon. I'm colorblind, so I usually just focus on the weapon and head style and randomize everything else. I'm sure it looks stupid.

Right at the beginning, the game gives you the ability to cheat wildly. After creating your characters, no matter what attribute statistics they originally received, you can choose to "modify" them and change the statistics to whatever you want. The ostensible reason for this, given in the manual, is: "You may want to bring your favorite AD&D character into Pool of Radiance. Create a character of the same race and class and then modify it to match your non-computer AD&D character." Sure. All around the world, Pool of Radiance players suddenly had paper D&D characters with every attribute set at 18.

When I played Pool of Radiance the first time, in 1988, and the second time, in probably 1995, I happily engaged in this type of cheating, but not this time. It's hardly necessary anyway. Rarely does the game offer you single-digit attribute statistics. These were the numbers I got for Lame Brain after only three or four re-rolls:

His intelligence belies his name. His face does not.

Your characters start with no equipment and roughly 100 gold pieces per person. The game begins on the docks of Phlan, your mercenary ship presumably having just arrived. You are greeted by a townsman named Rolf who proceeds to give you a quick tour of the city and the major edifices.

Hey! We must be related!

Rolf shows the Temple of Tyr, the docks, the training facility, City Hall, Sune's Temple, City Park, and the entrance to the "monster-ridden areas of the old city." He then leaves the party alone to begin its adventure. This posting is already getting long, so I'll get into the real meat of the gameplay tomorrow.

Before I go, though, we must discuss the game's documentation. The game comes with an interesting construction called a "codewheel" that serves as both a copy protection device and a translator. The codewheel has two overlapping rings--one inner, one outer--and at the beginning of each session, the game asks you to match up two runes and tell it what word is found along one of three paths.

Lacking a physical copy, I was in the middle of creating a complicated PowerPoint-based solution when it suddenly hit me that someone must have programmed a little applet for this somewhere. Sure enough, I found a web site that allows you to do the selections quite easily. And guess who created it. That's right: Andrew freaking Schultz, the "king of classic CRPG walkthroughs". Did this guy do everything? It's actually not hosted on his own site any more, and the current hosts note that they can't reach him. I couldn't reach him, either, when I wrote about walkthroughs. Where did he go?

The second piece of important documentation is the Adventurer's Journal, which is almost unique in CRPGs of the era, although the concept was seen first way back in Temple of Apshai and taken to something of an extreme in Star Saga. To account for the limitations in on-screen text and cut scenes of the era, the creators described key encounters, including visuals such as maps and diagrams, in a 57-entry Adventurer's Journal. At key points, the game cues you to open the journal and read one or more of the entries. Lest you be tempted to read ahead, they randomized the order of entries and included several red herrings among the real ones.

A random journal entry. This is the last time I look one up before the game tells me to.

The Journal also contains a collection of 23 "tavern tales" that you hear in bars. My first tavern tale was that "buccaneers operate a slave auction out of a hidden camp near Stormy Bay." Finally, it contains the quest proclamations that you find outside City Hall.

My characters have just arrived in town, so my first goal is to get some equipment. I still remember the first time I played the game, when I got embroiled in a huge tavern brawl before I had any weapons, and all my characters died. After that, I'll map the town and see what quests await me at City Hall. A warning for the next few weeks: I'm probably going to drag this one out.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Advertisements on the CRPG Addict. And Pizza.


On May 30, 2011, I decided to explore adding advertisements to the CRPG Addict. I had promised my wife--who didn't know about the blog for its first year of existence--that I would at least try to get some revenue out of it, so we could have dinner once a month as some compensation for all of the nights I was blogging instead of sleeping next to her. (Though to be fair, Irene, when you read this: I do lots of other work in the middle of the night, too. I have the e-mails to prove it!)

This being a Google-hosted blog, the ads come from Google AdSense. AdSense had a set of terms and conditions so long that I suspect I may be violating them by even talking about them. (I suspect I may be violating them when I brush my teeth or feed my cat, too.) AdSense, as I understand it, scans the blog for keywords and tries to target ads to the blog's likely audience. A fair number of game and MMORPG ads seem to show up, for instance. In the first 24 hours, there have also been a lot of ads for the Geek2Geek dating site. Can't imagine what on my blog must have triggered those.

It's important to understand that I don't have direct control over what ads appear. It draws them from a pool. I can make some tweaks, but I can't say that I don't want to see any more from a specific company, or that I don't want to see any more with scantily-clad elves. At that same time, my understanding is that Google polices these companies very well, so you should never see overt pornography, ads for anything illegal, or ads that take you to malware sites. If you do experience any of these--or anything else offensive--let me know (best to take a screen shot, too, since the ads change on every reload). One thing I can do is switch to text-only ads, but I actually think they look worse against my site background, so I only want to do that if the images are problematic.

My primary purpose in writing this blog is to write about something I enjoy, so I'll dump the ads if they cause problems or if too many readers complain. The initial reaction to my announcement (see the note below and the comments attached) were mostly supportive, and I've taken the comments received so far as an a-okay. But keep using this posting to comment about your concerns or problems with the ads (I read every comment, no matter how old).

Finally, I appreciate if you turn of Adblock for my site, but of course I understand if you don't. Please click on the ads if you're honestly interested in visiting those advertisers, but please do not think you're doing me any favors by clicking on ads that don't interest you. Google has algorithms that seek out "click fraud," and the amount of money I stand to make from ads is not worth any associated legal issues.

As always, thanks for your readership and support.



Note: This posting originally announced my intention to try ads and asked if the readers were okay with that. I know it's not usually kosher to modify a posting so much after people have commented, but I didn't want this topic to take up multiple postings on the blog, and I wanted to have a posting I could link to permanently.

Note 2: Ignore this paragraph below, and the title. I'm testing out a hypothesis.

Pizza! Boy could I go for a pizza right now! A nice, thick-crust, hand-tossed pizza, maybe with mushrooms and black olives, or maybe ham and pineapple. Yes, sir, I sure am in the market for a good pizza!

Omega: Final Rating

I did something better than winning. I "achieved maximal entropy."
I know that when I last blogged about Omega, I was still trying to win for real, but the corruptions kept piling up on themselves, and pretty soon I couldn't recognize half of my equipment. The final straw came when my save game got corrupted. I had some other backups from a couple hours earlier, but I would have lost a lot of playing and I couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't happen again. Part of me wants to keep playing. I found a later version on a different web site, and there's a chance that it fixes a lot of the bugs I encountered. It also has color! 
But I can't see investing the kind of time it would take to rebuild a character right now, especially with Pool of Radiance waiting for me. So I'm going to do my GIMLET and see if I can find an excuse to be pulled back to Omega later. Keeping that possibility open, I've avoided looking at any walkthroughs or spoiler files.
If you have to go...
1. Game World. The world of Omega is extensive if not terribly well-described. It has a major city (Rampart), several towns, castles, dungeons, mountains, forests, and other features. More important is the struggle between order and chaos that is present in every aspect of gameplay. This lore is found in the scrolls of Rampart's library and in clues you pick up throughout the game. This is the only roguelike I've played that has bothered to create a backstory and lore for its world. Score: 5.
Studying in the library.
2. Character Creation and Development. Omega allows a fascinating type of character creation in which you can "play yourself," answering questions about your own lifestyle and attributes to generate your character. Naturally, there is a temptation to lie during this process (warning: the game notes the most outrageous ones), but it's still exceedingly clever, and the most original system this side of Ultima IV. The development process is also satisfying: there are various ways to increase your attributes, and lots of quests, battles, and special encounters to increase experience and levels. The "guild" system is a nice touch--I think this might actually be the first CRPG to allow membership in multiple competing guilds, especially based on alignment. And it's satisfying how you can level in both experience and guild memberships, obtaining items, skills, and spells as you do so. Your alignment and guild memberships affect how others treat you, and this is one of the first games to really allow "role-playing" by alignment. My score of 7 for this category has this game tying with Dungeon Master with a high so far.
Some of the game's character development questions.
3. NPC Interaction. There are NPCs in the game--guards, the Oracle, the Archdruid, the Duke, the Archmage, wandering merchants--but conversation is one-way. The ability to intimidate, bribe, or pick their pockets is an interesting addition but not the same thing as having dialog options. Score: 3.
Intimidating a guard.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game is similar to Rogue or NetHack in its wide selection of monsters, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Most of the encounters are random, and levels do respawn when you leave and return. I didn't find any scripted encounters, but the game does offer role-playing choices in regular encounters. There are non-hostile monsters, for instance, and attacking them moves you towards chaos, while attempting to talk to hostile monsters (I think) moves you towards law. The game makes clever references to other fictions and mythologies without being goofy about it. Score: 6. 5. Magic and Combat. Omega does one better than traditional roguelikes by giving you multiple attacks per round and letting you set a "combat sequence" of high, medium, and low slashes, thrusts, lunges, or blocks. It's not as detailed as Might & Magic but it's better than Rogue. The layout of dungeons adds tactics to combat as you try to position yourself in the best locations, and you can try to escape by vaulting or tunneling through walls. Spells are acquired slowly and cast with a "mana" system. This was one thing I didn't understand: my spell points kept draining when I rested, and I have no idea why. Score: 5.
Kibfizma's selection of spells.
6. Equipment. Like other roguelikes, this game excels in its large selection of equipment: weapons, armor, rings, accessories, cloaks, boots, wands, potions, scrolls, food, and other items. The locations of most are randomized, and the + levels and relative costs, plus the changes they make to your hit, damage, defense, armor, and speed scores, makes it easy to weigh one item against another. What I like about Omega in contrast to Rogue or NetHack is that you can pay to identify your items in town, or by spell, instead of having to figure them out through trial-and-error and the occasional rare scroll. I have to give it a high score here: 8. 7. Economy. Simply put: one of the best I've seen. Gold is hard to acquire and easy to spend, just as it should be. Even advanced characters will still find use for gold in buying the condo, using the gym, studying at the library, recharging mana, or just donating to the orphanage. If you really ran out of things to do, you could keep making repeat visits to the brothel (500 gold) for 100 experience points each. Score: 8.
The gym gives you the option to build your attributes for 2000 gold a point.
8. Quests. I never quite got a handle on what the "main quest" was supposed to accomplish, but there are a number of side quests, for guilds, the duke, and the oracle. They're mostly kill-and-fetch endeavors, but still more than most CRPGs of the era offer. The main quest seems to offer several pathways to the end, which is another first. Score: 5. 9. Graphics, Sound, Inputs. This is the game's weakest area. I realize that many roguelike fans find a certain noble purity in ASCII graphics, but I would have enjoyed the game all the more if it had featured real graphics and animation. There is no sound. I found the controls to be less intuitive than some roguelikes, especially as regards the complexity of the inventory system. Score: 1. 10. Gameplay. This is one of the only games of the era to encourage such replayability, both in alignment and in the guilds that the player joins. Again, it allows multiple paths to victory, and it is fairly non-linear. On the negative side are the difficulty (permanent death is a little untenable) the unnecessarily large dungeons, and the whole wilderness/food headache. Even though I enjoyed playing it, it was starting to drag a bit, and I suspect I might have gotten a little tired of it before it was over. Score: 5. The final score of 53 ties it with Starflight and Ultima IV in third place of all the games I've reviewed so far. Only the time factor keeps me from launching into a new game with different guild choices. I still might, after Pool of Radiance. I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface of what's possible in this game, especially as regards the religious system. I'll do an update if I play again later. Or perhaps some of you who play Omega can share your experiences. In our e-mail exchange, Mr. Brothers notes that he only ever received around $200 from dedicated players. Well, I certainly enjoyed myself enough to increase his earnings by about 12.5%. There's an Amazon.com gift card coming your way, Laurence--thanks for such an innovative and enjoyable game.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Omega: Sort-of Won!

Not a terribly exciting winning screen. But then, I didn't win in a terribly exciting way.

Unfortunately, Omega has a few bugs. It happens even with the best software. They started creeping into the gameplay shortly after I finished the Goblin Caves. Items got renamed with nonsense characters. When I hold a two-handed weapon, the game sometimes thinks it's two separate items and assigns me the weight of both. I deposited 4,000 gold in the bank, and it was gone when I returned. An outdoor fight went bad, and all my commands just made nonsense characters appear on the screen.

I am actually armed with an Axe +6, not "gold pieces +6," and I am wearing a ring of strength +2, not an "0^C^A)F&&\%fuX&&\^A +2."

But not all the bugs are bad. I went to the pawn shop and asked for an item letter that wasn't being displayed. I was told that that item (another random string of characters) cost -67,348 gold. I bought it, and suddenly had over 70,000 gold pieces. With this money, I bought a condo and retired--the game's least satisfying way of winning.

I'm not actually going to end the game here. I restored an earlier save from before I made the transaction. But it might get to the point where there are so many bugs I can no longer play. We'll see how long I can go on.

On the real main quest, the sewers beneath Rampart were rendered a bit faster by a series of elevators. In only about an hour, I was exploring Level 18, where I found the Great Wyrm. It took me three or four reloads to kill him, but ultimately I got his head and the duke's sword, and I headed for the surface. I didn't find any elevators on the way back, so getting out took considerably longer than getting in.

Returning to the duke, I was congratulated, promoted, and asked to kill a dragon and get some dragonscale armor. I have no idea where to find it. Meanwhile, the Oracle wanted me to find the ArchMage's Castle.

More references discovered: Occasionally, you encounter a parrot in the dungeons. If you kill it, the game says "the parrot is dead!" in a probable Monty Python reference. (I've already risked your disdain by telling you about my dislike for anime and Lord of the Rings, so I'll also confess that I can't stand Monty Python.) If it's not, the "holy hand grenade" I discovered in the ArchMage's Castle certainly is. In the sewers, I found a "rodent of unusual size" from The Princess Bride. There were banshees, but spelled sort-of like the original Gaelic way, "ban-sidhe." There were also some Tritons from Greek legend.

With no particular idea where to go next, I began exploring the outdoors. As I said early in posting about this game, wandering the wilds is annoying because you get hungry every two or three steps. You have to carry dozens of buckets of food with you to keep from starving to death. Aside from that, the outdoor area seems quite large. I found a few towns scattered about, and each helped me with a map shop that gave me a map of the surrounding area.

This would be a good time to mention the economy, which is excellent in this game. As I discussed long ago, I like the process of collecting gold and spending it, and I don't like games that leave you with nothing to do with your riches. I don't think that's a problem here. Between the condo at 50,000 gold, working out at the gym, buying things in the pawn shop, recharging spell points, buying maps, and donating to charities (if you're lawful), I don't think there's any way to have too much money.

The outdoor map is large, and all kinds of things can happen on it, including "chaos storms" that either kill you or leave you having "learned something" and thus with more experience. There are also random encounters that take you to a "tactical map." With all of the difficulties, it would be nice if all of the dungeons and castles were visible on the map, but they're not: you have to "search" for them, and with such a large map it's hard to imagine searching every step. Fortunately, in the case of the ArchMage's Castle, I found a secret mountain pass that obviously led to something, and so I knew enough to search at the end.

Finally, as I close for the day, on Level 2 of the ArchMage's Castle, this might be the truest-to-life experience I've ever had playing a CRPG:

Casa Mia, Kennewick, WA, 2002. Trying to impress a girl. Ended up at Kennewick General Hospital instead.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Omega: Low Expectations, High Satisfaction

My current status in the sewers of Rampart. Note that the corridors are thin and long, as you might expect in sewers.
My e-mail exchange with Laurence Brothers, recounted yesterday, had me feeling bad about cheating in Omega. After all, he had a good point: the game is not impossibly difficult if you take care and make smart choices. Allowing myself to save once per level, I caught myself following the letter rather than the spirit of my own rules. Sure, I can't reload after I accidentally don a cursed set of armor, but that doesn't mean I have to try my best against the next goblin chieftain I encounter. Oh, look at that: he killed me. I guess I'll have to reload. So I started thinking that I should stop backing up my saves. And then this happened: I was doing nothing more risky than walking down a hallway, when suddenly a hole opened up beneath me and I was--let me quote the game--"killed by warping into magma from the infinite abyss." Huh? This game was developed in the tradition of Rogue, but a complete game of Rogue, if you don't die, takes only a few hours. Omega is looking like it's going to take days to win, even with backing up my saves. So I once again reject permanent death: I will continue to backup my save files, and you'll hear no more about it. I played for a number of hours today, exploring both the Goblin Caves and the sewers beneath Rampart. Here are some new developments and discoveries.
  • Ages before Neverwinter Nights would do it for what I thought was the first time, Omega allows you to buy and find trap components, and set up your own traps to ensnare, bomb, poison, pierce, slash, and otherwise kill your enemies. Sometimes, when you disarm a found trap, you can preserve the components and later set up your own--again, just like Neverwinter Nights. Unlike NN, though, Omega allows you to accidentally blunder into your own trap.
  • Occasionally, I find a "Scroll of Hint" that tells me something about the game world. One of them told me that "only a master of chaos would kill all the city guards!" I guess this is a title I could strive for. This game clearly equates chaos with evil.
  • One of the monsters I fought was a "pencil-necked geek." I vaguely remember a song of this title on the "Dr. Demento" radio show in the 1980s, and it turns out I was right. It was sung by Johnny Legend.
  • Another monster was an "etheric grue," an obvious homage to Zork.
  • I found a Wand of Summoning that I figured would summon monsters to fight for me. Instead, they just attack me. One of my more memorable deaths is when I used it and it summoned an Archangel, who in turn summoned three or four more Archangels, and they killed me in one round.
  • There are a couple of helpful teleportation spells in the game. I stumbled upon the Explorer's Club in Rampart fairly late, and was given a spell called "Return" that takes me back to the lowest-explored level after I leave a dungeon and return. Another spell called "Warp" (which I don't have, but have found on a scroll) takes me to any dungeon level. Between the two of these, I can get in and out of a dungeon quickly. Unfortunately, I didn't have them while exploring the Goblin Caves, and it took me forever to get to Level 10 (where the king was) and back.
  • In the Goblin Caves, I found the Amulet of Yendor! I assume it must be a joke, as it doesn't do anything and it sells for 0 gold pieces.
For a moment, I thought I won the game.
  • An awesome scroll I found educated me about all other scrolls. This means I no longer have to identify them. Of course, this isn't a big deal any more because I learned the "Identify" spell at the Collegium Magii.
Hopefully, Jane also published guides to potions, rings, and wands. I don't know what the reference to Jane is, but I strongly encourage you not to Google "Jane's Guide."
  • It turns out the brothel imparts 100 experience points for the 500 gold you spend there.
  • After a long series of progressive raids on the Goblin Caves, I found the Goblin King on the 10th level, killed him, and took his head. A "far-off woman's" voice said, "Well done! Come to me now..."
  • When I returned the head to the Duke of Rampart, he gave me another quest to find a sword in the city's sewers. The Oracle also told me to head down there, so that's what I'm doing next. I've explored nine levels and nothing so far.
How about now that I've proven myself true, a comfortable retirement in the country?
  • The Goblin King had a weapon called the "Goblin's Hewer +6," which does massive damage but is two-handed, so I can't hold a shield.
My character continues to develop. Various scrolls, potions, trips to the gym, and other bonuses have attributes fairly high (my intelligence somehow went from 12 to 19 in a couple of hours without my noticing), and I have some cool items, including a ring of regeneration +7. I really didn't expect to play Omega this long, but the dungeons are quite large, and for a roguelike of the era, it has an enormous amount of plot. (If it lasts too much longer, I might save the rest for after Pool of Radiance, because I'm really eager to get to that game.) I can't think of many other games for which I had such low expectations ("ho, hum: another roguelike") and such a high level of satisfaction once I actually started playing. What are some of your favorites in this category?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Omega: Everything is a Reference

The stuff that dreams are made of. (Incidentally, it turned out to be worth 0.)
Okay, first off: I didn't "interview" Laurence Brothers. I don't know how to properly conduct an interview. I did trade some e-mails with him and got some background information on the game. I'll drop in his quotes when appropriate. His most important insight was that "almost everything in the game comes from some fictional reference," including mythology. I'm catching some of them. There's The Maltese Falcon above, and I found a (useless) "sword that was broken" that I imagine is a Lord of the Rings reference (I also have some lembas wafers). Is the Goblin King a reference to Labyrinth, or is that too generic? We have deities from different pantheons: Odin (Norse), Athena (Greek), Set (Egyptian), and Hecate (Roman), and of course the Oracle is Greek. The "Lords of Destiny" might be a reference to a 1985 Dr. Who roleplaying game. The curse in Romani, which an anonymous commenter translated a couple of days ago, comes from a book by Charles de Lint ("yeah, it turns out that curse is a lot more vile than I thought"). I've probably missed a million others.

I don't think Mr. Brothers looked at my blog even after I invited him to, but it's funny how similarly we write and think about games. "One of my proudest achievements in school," he writes, "was winning a Rogue game fair and square without hacking it at all." Indeed, this is what started my blog! He notes that when you die in Rogue, "you just gnash your teeth and start a new game," which I had phrased as, "dying, screaming, and reloading." He does say that he intended Omega to be as hard as it is, and he deliberately implemented permanent death with Rogue-style difficulty in mind.

However, he notes that, "Omega is actually not that hard if you know all the tricks and secrets," and he suggested that one of them was hacking the ATM machine in Rampart for some extra cash (I haven't done this yet). Ironically, since I announced a couple of days ago that I would be cheating at Omega by backing up my saved games, I have only died twice. An anonymous commenter wrote yesterday that once you gain a few levels, "your character becomes much more durable," and I'm finding that to be true.

Let's talk about the things I've done and discovered since the last posting.

  • I owe a debt to yet another anonymous commenter (what's with all these anonymous folks lately?) for explaining the "Combat Maneuver Sequence." Not only was I being inefficient in my combat, I also wasn't using all of the actions that I could have taken. No wonder the fights were so hard.

  • I got down to Level 6 of the Goblin Caves. I still haven't found the king yet. I keep returning to Rampart every time my pack is full, where my kind associates at the Thieves' Guild identify all my items for 5 gold pieces each. Man, I wish there was a similar option in NetHack. On my first trip to the caves, I realized belatedly that I had wandered over there with just a club. I got a great axe from a goblin chieftain, but Kibfizma turned out to suck with it for some reason, and I ended up using a dagger until I found something better.

The best advantage I've ever gotten from a guild.

  • I've joined two more factions. I became an acolyte of the Lords of Destiny and an associate of the Sorcerer's Guild. It appears that as you gain experience, your various guilds promote you and give you new advantages (the Sorcerer's Guild gives spells, for instance).
  • I've won maybe eight combats in the arena (where I am a gladiator). These winnings entitled me to credits at a local gym, where I find that working out buffed up my statistics considerably. I went from 15 strength to 18 after a few turns on the weight machine. I'm guessing that the Collegium Magii (which I have not yet enrolled in) does something similar for intelligence and power.

Slightly higher prices than Planet Fitness.

  • As I said, I've died twice. Once was in the arena, when I faced Tyron the Apprentice Ninja. I was confused when I couldn't see my opponent at first. It dawned on me that he's a ninja just as he disemboweled me.

You don't see ninjas until they want you to see them.

  • That freaking ghost continued to chase me around town for ages, immune to melee attacks, immune to magic missile. It wasn't until I got firebolt from the Sorcerer's Guild that I was finally able to kill the bastard.

  • I won a fair amount of money at the casino. The slots advantage the house as bad as in Vegas, but roulette seems to offer roughly even odds.

The roulette wheel is obviously a reference to The Pickup Artist.

  • I found a brothel in town and paid a few hundred gold for the night. It wasn't really worth it.

"Honey, I swear! It was just 'educational'!"

  • I took a break from the Goblin Caves to go find the Archdruid. It was a bit anticlimactic. He lives in a forest hut surrounded by priests, angels, and demons, and the only thing he did for me was to offer a "ritual of neutralization" that recovered my alignment from chaos. Returning to Rampart, the Oracle now tells me to check out the Goblin Caves. Great! I was already on that.

Finding the ArchDruid's hut in the forest. You get hungry absurdly fast in the game. To make it here and back, I had to carry 25 buckets of fried lizard parts (from Chronicles of Amber?).

  • I'm developing a reasonably good inventory. A cutlass +2 for my primary weapon, a blessed round shield +2 and blessed soft leather armor +5. I got some boots of agility and a "ring of brass and glass +4" whose purpose is actually slightly confusing to me.

I thought the moon's phase as "gibbous" must be another fantasy reference, but it turns out that's a real word, meaning between half and fully illuminated. Another thing I learned from CRPGs.

For his inspiration to write the game, Mr. Brothers credits the "obvious" realization that Rogue-like gameplay "could be expanded out of its one simple dungeon to...a larger world." However, he says that the real reason was "mainly to avoid working on a Ph.D., which I in fact never got, so it was a successful project from that point of view." Ironically, I am blogging about Omega to avoid working on a Ph.D., but Mr. Brothers consoles me that "you can stay ABD forever if the chairman likes you." I guess I'd better stop playing so many games or start sucking up.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Omega: Succumbed to Cheating

The game is not insulting me. My character's name was "Bozo."

Shortly after I began this blog, it took a turn that I didn't expect, and didn't even really notice at the time: I began playing a lot of independent CRPGs. About one-third of the games in my blog (if you count the "backtracking" postings from last July) were developed as what we would now call "shareware."

Independent games tend to lack the bells and whistles of commercially-developed CRPGs, but they often have more intriguing gameplay, as we find with NetHack, and certainly a much greater challenge. But here's the essential "problem" with them, coming from the perspective of someone who has in front of him a task to play thousands of games and is only at Game 56: commercial game publishers have to worry about the market, and so they tend to avoid releasing games that are @#!@%&ing impossible. With independent games, on the other hand, you are often at the mercy of a single soulless, basement-dwelling sociopath. I'm not saying that Laurence Brothers is such a person, but I'm frankly beginning to suspect that he at least was.

[Later edit: the day after this was published, Rampant Coyote did a great job turning my snarky comment into a thoughtful posting on his blog.]

There's so much great stuff in this game that it deserves multiple postings on this blog, but I'm never going to get to them because I can't live long enough. Omega would be pretty bloody hard without permanent death. With it...it's untenable for me to keep playing without cheating.

"Cheating" in this context--in any context, really--is when you subvert the intentions of the game designer in order to reduce the intended difficulty of the game. I can say it's not fair, but Mr. Brothers intended this game to be very hard; if he hadn't, he wouldn't have written the game to delete the save file after you load it.

So: I'm going to keep playing, but I'm going to allow myself to backup the save game file once per map (dungeon level, town, etc.). I can only restore and reload if I die, not if I just don't like the outcome of equipping a particular item or drinking a particular potion. With this limited cheating in place, I hope I can get further in the game and uncover some of its mysteries.

Sitting in a class today, I idly wrote a series of Excel formulas to automatically generate a random sequence of letters for my character name (I don't know any actual programming). The result is "Kibfizma." Kibfizma is going to tend towards the side of chaos. The first thing I had her do, after arriving in town, was break into a house. It turned out to be occupied by a ghost who...well, you need to see it:

Ghosts are scary. Clowns are scary. The ghost of a clown is terrifying.

Yep. It's the ghost of my most recent adventurer. The ghost and a separate haunt attacked me, and the game said I was too terrified to fight, so I went screaming back out onto the street.

Seeking to redeem my inauspicious start, I bashed down the door to a mansion across the street, set off an alarm, was taken to jail, and got probation.

Rampart is controlled by liberals.

Okay. Something new. Next door to the jail was the arena, so I signed up as a gladiator and got a wooden sword and shield and a 5000 gold piece credit at the gym. I entered a match, killed Ebeneezer the Goblin, and won 100 gold.

The paladins called me a "minion of chaos" and told me to get lost, and the castle said I wasn't famous enough to visit the duke. At the casino, I lost two rounds and won one, leaving with about 100 gold more than I started with. Found a pawn shop but couldn't really afford anything good. Found a place that sells and rents apartments for when I have more money. Bought 20 buckets of fried lizard for the road.

One of several guilds to join in the game.

I tried to join the mercenary guild, but it appears that they don't want me since I'm a gladiator. This confirms my previous experience that membership in certain guilds bars you from others. Damn. I didn't want to be a gladiator that badly, but I'll play it out and see where it goes. It looks like the Circle of Sorcerers might have me, but I need to raise 1,800 gold first. Similarly, the Collegium Magii wants 1,000 gold for enrollment.

I wandered into a temple and became a "lay devotee" after praying at a statue of the Lords of Destiny. Bought some ring mail at Julie's. The town is so big that it would be hard to remember where the various stores are, but there's a neat (M)ove command that allows you to return to any facility that you've visited.

Near the temple, I tried a closed door and discovered the Thieves' Guild! That's more like it. I waited a couple of hours until nightfall, when they were open, but didn't have enough gold to join. I went back to the arena, won two more battles, and then joined the guild, for which I got a lockpick and the spell Object Detection.

By this time, I had gained enough levels to visit the palace and get the quest to kill the Goblin King from the duke. I'm being chased around town by a ghost that I picked up in the cemetery. Every time I get close to it, it "terrorizes" me and renders me incapable of attacking until I flee for a few squares. Leaving town and coming back doesn't help. I tried to avoid him to get to the Oracle (who again suggested that I visit the ArchDruid) but I found the ghost blocking the path back. I had to cut my way through a hedge to evade him, which poisoned me. The poison nearly killed me, but it wore off just as I was on my last hit point.

I left town and I'm now attempting the goblin caves again. I've risen to Level 4, which is a "peregrinator." I figured this had something to do with a falcon, but I looked up the word, and it turns out "peregrinate" is simply a synonym for "migrate" or "wander." A "peregrine falcon" is named because it migrates over a wide territory. So chalk up another one to "what have you learned?"

All right. Sorry to go into such detail about the town, but it's a good illustration of how much variety is in this game. Here are a few miscellaneous points and questions:

  • What the heck is "grot"? I keep finding it, but if I use it it doesn't seem to do anything.

Occam's razor: I'm probably just picking up piles of garbage.

  • The game has a "(T)unnel" command that lets you carve holes in dungeon walls. Sometimes you do this to avoid something blocking a passage, sometimes to get to some treasure, and sometimes just to make a shortcut. Tunneling creates rubble, and there's a chance you'll get injured or stuck for a few turns when you try to cross it.
  • Among the many commands I've yet to try in the game: cast a spell, pick someone's pocket, "vault over a few intervening spaces," rename an item, set a combat "action sequence," or hunt for food. This game is very NetHackian in the complexity of its uses of commands and uses of objects with each other.
  • You can eat corpses in the game--I just ate a goblin--but it doesn't seem to have much of an effect. It didn't even cure my hunger. The next time I found a corpse, I picked it up and tried to throw it at my next enemy, but the game said that the goblin "didn't accept my gift"--I guess if you hurl a non-weapon at a foe, the game treats it like you're trying to give him something. Interesting. I wonder what uses it has.

The game is full of references to other media, half of which I'm probably not getting. Here's one that I do know, even though I dislike this show for purely irrational reasons that I'll discuss when I get to BattleTech (there's a connection):

Now, here's some exciting news: One of my readers, Eugene, gave me the current e-mail address for Laurence Brothers, and Mr. Brothers has been kind enough to share some of his recollections about the development process. (He didn't know I was about to refer to him as a "basement-dwelling sociopath.") I've never interviewed a CRPG developer before, so I'm probably asking all the wrong questions, but assuming he's okay with my publishing his quotes to the world, I'll have some more information for you tomorrow.