Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dragon Wars: Ours Not to Reason Why

The most difficult combat in the game so far.

Interplay has never really held much of a place in my heart when it comes to combat and magic. The tendency of Interplay games has generally been to throw scads of meaningless random combats at the party, most of which are too easy yet still take too long. I thought The Bard's Tale was reasonably well-balanced, but I swiftly grew tired of the combats in The Bard's Tale II and III and Wasteland, which contributed to my quitting the previous two games prematurely.

Combat in Dragon Wars has definitely improved, but I still don't love it. There are still a bit too many random combats (never mind what I said in the first posting; it got a little worse). In previous Interplay games, you could blow through random combats because you knew you could heal at the end of them and then wait for spell points to recharge. But in Dragon Wars, there's no recharging of spell points without using expensive (though admittedly plentiful) dragon stones, so you need to conserve magic, which means conserving hit points in combat itself. Yes, the "bandage" skill is free, but it doesn't heal everyone fully, so you need spell points if you want to keep everyone at top shape. Yes, there are magic-recharging pools, but I've only found three of them, all very close to the beginning of the game. Part of me wishes for Might & Magic's CTRL-A, which zips you through easy combats by selecting default actions for every character, but it would be irresponsible to use it in this game even if it existed.

This is basically an automatic-reload situation, since I have no way to raise dead characters and you can't create new characters once the game has started.

Random combats in this game are punctuated by the occasional nigh-impossible combat in which you exhaust spell points and often have to use multiple dragon stones. Since my last posting, I've faced at least four fixed combats that I had to reload more than six times each to win. Worse, these combats generally occur at unavoidable places. It's easy to get yourself trapped in an area that you have to conquer at least one major fixed combat to leave. Finally, fixed encounters respawn every time you leave a map and return, meaning you have to fight the same packs of goblins or bridge guards all the time while you're just trying to get from place to place.

The game has a bit of a sense of humor.

Finally, character development is so slow in this game that it's not really much of a viable strategy to go somewhere else for a while, grind, and return. Leveling doesn't convey any extra spell points or hit points--only spending skill points on your attributes does that, and you only get two skill points per level. The only true "development" that's helped me with difficult combats is finding better equipment and spells.

As I said, though, combats in Dragon Wars are better than any other Interplay game (so far). This is for three reasons:

1. They make contextual sense. You don't suddenly encounter groups of 9 goblins, 3 medusas, and a green dragon while wandering in the wilderness. You encounter guards and pikemen in battle camps, goblins in forests, spiders in caves, and so forth.

The little messages before each combat also make sense in context.

2. The "stun" system means that your characters are more likely to be knocked out temporarily than outright killed. This gives you a lot of incentive to fight 'til the last man, since "stun points" regenerate fully at the end of combat. I've had plenty of battles come down to my last fighter standing.

3. Boss combats feel like they really matter; you get some bit of lore or progression in the story once they're over.

You also get reasonably nice rewards.

Much like the Wizardry series, much of the tactical nature of combat in Dragon Wars has to do with spells, which have a non-trivial cost and thus must be used with care. You acquire them very slowly, in chests and shops. In each combat, you have to decide how much magic you want to expend and whether you want to spend it on offensive or defensive spells (unlike a lot of games, you can't cast buffing spells outside of combat). Because of the relative costs, even the little cantrips that you learn as part of "low magic" remain viable options well into the game. For instance, there's a Level 1 spell called "charm" that does nothing more than increase a single character's attack value by 1 and heal 1-2 points of damage. But it's so cheap to cast that I often fire it off when I only have three spell points left, and sometimes it's just enough to give a fighter an extra round.

The most difficult combat I faced since last posting was in the city of Byzanople, when I joined the forces of the city to oppose Namtar's legions. More on that below. I found myself in a position where I had to defeat the battle or I couldn't get out of the area, and for a long time, it didn't seem like I ever would. The battle was with 15 mercenaries, 15 guards, 5 royal guards, and 2 Kingshomer captains.

The one saving grace was that they started at staggered distances. Enemies can only attack at melee at 10 feet, and none of these enemies had ranged or magic attacks. The 15 mercenaries were right up against me, but it would take the other groups a while to advance.

It took me about 13 tries to win the combat, and I finally did it with this strategy:

  • I had everyone cast buffing spells during the first round except for my high mage, Elspeth. The 15 mercenaries weren't capable of much damage--maybe 1 or 2 points when they actually hit. Rather than fight them with melee weapons, I had them cast spells like "Luck" (+2 to defense for 1 character), "Mithras's Blessing" (+3 to defense for whole party), "Armor of Light" (+2 to armor class for 1 character), and "Scare" (+2 to the attack value for the party against one group). I took care of the mercenaries with two castings of "Poog's Vortex" from my high mage.

Castling spells in combat.

  • By the time the 15 guards were in range, I was pretty well buffed. To defeat them, I relied partly on the melee attacks of my front three characters and more "Poog's Vortex" spells from my high mage. My other two characters kept everyone healed with lesser and greater heal spells during these rounds, though it was hard as I didn't yet have a group healing spell.
  • The 5 royal guards got into melee range before the 15 guards were completely gone, but by then they were at a manageable number, and thanks to my buffing spells, they were doing small amounts of damage. Elspeth kept flinging mass damage spells, though she had to recharge three times during the battle with dragon stones.

Gotta love mass-damage spells.

  • The two captains started so far away that I had dealt with all of their comrades before they even made it to melee range. They were tough, but they could only knock out two characters per round even if they both hit, and I was able to keep up with healing spells from my rear three characters while my front three characters used melee attacks.

It sure was satisfying when they all died. In previous tries, I'd used the same strategy, but I'd been less successful with mass damage spells, and I ended up fighting a bunch of mercenaries, guards, and royal guards all at once. Limiting the damage they could do via buffing spells was vastly important to the victory.
It's always very satisfying to get this message.

I haven't experimented much with the different types of  attacks. Even my highly-skilled characters miss often enough that I don't want to sacrifice accuracy for power with "mighty blows," and choosing "disarm" just seems like a way to avoid actually doing any damage for the round.

I haven't had to face many enemy spellcasters in the game, but the ones I have faced have been horribly annoying, either repelling me from melee range with "Whirlwind" spells (which I don't have yet) or blasting me from far distances while I struggle towards them.

This might be the most annoying spell in the game. Every time I get close to him to engage him in melee combat, he shoves me away!

In The Bard's Tale games, characters leveled so fast that their additional attacks, critical hits, and other advantages vastly outperformed the quality of weapons that they carried. Unarmed attacks did only a few points less damage than the best weapons in the game. Not so in Dragon Wars. Finding new weapons and armor is vital to development, rendered all the more frustrating by a system that hides how much advantage you're truly getting. Every character has an attack score and a defense score based on the weapon, the character's attributes (strength and dexterity), the character's skills, and the type of armor worn. But even the manual says that there are all kinds of behind-the-scenes bonuses that don't get factored into these values, making them essentially useless.

I hate games that do this. Which is a better weapon? The "Slicer," the fire sword, the lance sword, or the "Axe of Kalah." I have no idea. You have to watch the damage values and compare, I suppose. Certain weapons have special uses like casting spells, and I've found that some of them allow an attack at greater than a 10-foot range. But I wish it would just tell me how much damage each weapon does.

A haul of either fantastic stuff or sucky stuff. No way to tell.
I videoed about 10 minutes of gameplay, including some combat, below:

I didn't narrate this one, but here are the highlights:

  • 00:05: I visit a shop. I don't need to buy anything here, but you can see some of the options.
  • 00:34: Showing the character attribute and skills screens.
  • 01:08: Showing the automap.
  • 01:30: Elspeth charges up with a dragon stone before battle.
  • 01:45: Combat with 5 guards and 5 royal guards begin. Oddly enough, the plain "guards" are the more difficult foe. They start at a distance, so I use the first few rounds to hit them with distance spells.
  • 02:45: Note that some spells give you the option to put more or less power into them.
  • 03:10: The characters execute the first round of combat.
  • 03:25: I remember to turn on the system sound for the recording.
  • 03:33: Elspeth's mass damage spell casts. It doesn't kill anyone, but it does soften them up.
  • 03:50: As the second round begins, I concentrate my melee attacks on the first group, hoping that Elspeth's second mass damage spell takes out the second group by itself.
  • 04:00: I have Ulrich cast "Scare" on the guards to improve my chances against them.
  • 04:23: I think the sound when melee weapons connect is very satisfying.
  • 04:53: The second mass damage spell does what I was hoping. The remaining two royal guards will just have a couple of hit points. Note that Elspeth is now down to about 1/3 of her spell points. The round ends with the guards (oddly) having failed to do any damage.
  • 05:04: In the third round, I switch my melee attacks to the two remaining royal guards, hoping to use Elspeth to take out the five softened regular guards.
  • 05:18: Belatedly, I have Ulrich cast "Mithras's Blessing" to improve my defense against the guards.
  • 05:54: An enemy lands his first blow against Ulrich, but it's a hard one. Note the sound. Also note how the 5 points of damage affect both Ulrich's health bar (the top one) and his "stun bar" (the second one). The stun bar always goes down faster, meaning that the character is more likely to be knocked unconscious than killed. It's interesting to note that this far into the game, 5 is still a very significant number for hit point damage, the opposite of what happens in most RPGs.
  • 06:13: As the next round begins, the four guards are still alive and I have two fairly seriously wounded characters, so healing them is going to be a priority. I have Ulrich cast healing spells. Elspeth is out of magic and needs to use a dragon stone to get her points back.
  • 08:00: By now, winning is inevitable, so I rush through the commands a bit.
  • 08:57: I win! And almost everyone gains levels!
  • 09:16: I demonstrate spending the two skill points I just got from leveling.
  • 10:00: This map happens to feature a healer who works for free, so I make use of his services.
  • 10:23: I step out of the siege camp and get a paragraph. I demonstrate the related entry in the game manual.

Before I close, let me briefly cover what happened in story terms since the last posting. You may recall that I had just entered the city of Phoebus. Exploring the city, I entered a building in which two of Namtar's officers looked my party up and down and decided to conscript us into the army. Their specific words were "Welcome to the service of King Drake. Hail Namtar!," suggesting that when Namtar "overthrew" Drake, he didn't literally replace him; he just uses him as a puppet.

Isn't this how it always happens? Rich kids pay for a deferral; poor kids get drafted.

Anyway, the game asked whether I wanted to sign up, and I of course said no. The officers then demanded a $350 "indemnity" fee to avoid service. I didn't want to pay that, either, and I said "no," figuring I'd end up in a fight with the officers. Instead, the game interpreted my decision as agreeing to the initial conscription, and I soon found myself bundled off to the siege camp outside Byzanople, the last city to resist "the enlightenment of joining the unified Kingshomer Empire under Namtar and King Drake."

The game made a point that "there is no opportunity to desert," but there was, and it involved getting past the guards that I defeated in the video. I thought about trying to escape at that point, but I wondered what I'd find in the city of Byzanople, so I decided to check it out. Namtar's general, Buck Ironhead, was happy to send me forth into the city, thinking I was infiltrating it for him.

Right..."Infiltrating." We'll get right on that.

I was probably here too soon. There were some tough battles, including one with a hydra that took me several re-loads to win. Fortunately, the game didn't force me to fight for Namtar. I was able to get into the dungeons under the city, where I was captured by Princess Myrolla and brought to her brother, Prince Jordan.

At least she didn't take all my stuff.

There was some good journal-based exposition here, as Jordan told me that he was the son of King Drake, who he hasn't seen in over a year, "since Namtar rose from the Pit." He asked me to join him in a battle against Namtar's besieging forces, and I agreed. But when the time came for the battle, Jordan was nowhere to be found and I had to fight it alone, many times. It was this battle that I described at the beginning. I nearly gave up and started the game completely over a couple of times.

There were some real-life libations going on at the same time.

When I finally won, I made my way out of the now-deserted siege camp and into the wilderness. I kept finding battles that outmatched me, so I concentrated on trying to get back to familiar territory. I found a ferry to the city of Lansk, which I recognized as one of the passages upward from the underworld. I soon found myself in the Lansk undercity, where there were statues of gods, tough combats, a hidden store selling spells (including, finally, a mass healing spell). I found the area where the city was keeping its dragon--described in the journal entry as such:

Here you find Lansk's dragon, perhaps first glimpsed from the city square above. Up close the dragon is not nearly so impressive It is an old dragon--its fire has gone out, and its teeth have been pulled. It is still a powerful beast, but age or drugs seem to have robbed the beast of its fighting spirit. The animal looks at you with something close to sadness in its eyes.

I couldn't find any productive way to interact with the beast, even though a bartender in a previous city had given me a rumor about the dragon concealing a "powerful gem." I marked the spot as a mystery to be solved later, and I went upstairs to the city proper.

This was pretty funny..

There, I spent a lot of time running around getting various papers stamped (it was a very bureaucratic city) only to end up with a "governor's pass," which I already had.

There was this message, referring to a previous encounter, but despite it, I didn't actually seem to get anything from it. Maybe I need to return to the estate.

The city produced one of the most annoying combats I've faced in the game, with a "civil servant" capable of summoning more of his kind. Before I could kill him, he'd grown from 1 to 20. I very slowly whittled them down and was rewarded, in the end, with 3 whole experience points.

Leaving the city, I crossed a bridge--fighting several pikemen along the way--looted some guard barracks for magical equipment, and finally arrived on the island from which I had originally departed about 8 hours previously. I re-entered Phoebus, reminding myself not to step on the conscription square again.
It's a fun game where this kind of thing can occur: where you can be whisked off your course by some event, and you can decide just go with it and see what happens. (Actually, the single save slot basically ensures that you have to "just go with it.") I suspect there was some way that I could have chosen to fight Princess Myrolla and Prince Jordan and actually aid Namtar's forces in taking Byzanople, though I don't know what kind of long-term consequences this would have had.

One final thing: I did discover what happens when the entire party dies, rather than simply being stunned. It's not very exciting. You get a brief message and dumped to the DOS prompt.

This happens if you wander around outside Byzanople's walls instead of going under them.

I have no idea how far I am in the game, but I look forward to seeing what happens next.


  1. I played this my first year of college and I remember loving it but not a whole lot more. I believe it may have been the final game I played on my old Apple IIe that had served me for a good many years by that time.

  2. The "random" encounters aren't so random, from what I remember. Resetting a map by entering and leaving it, you can hit the same spots and fight combats over and over, though the exact encounter will be randomly generated. I still have my old hand drawn maps, which have the combat locations marked.

    Dragon Wars used to be one of my go-to games, back in the day. I played through it in one sitting one night in a hospital ICU waiting room, on a old 386 laptop.

    Another thing you could do is restart the game using your old characters. Between that and the bonus 5 skill points you can get, you can play through with some very over powered characters. After several playthroughs with the same group, the game tended to get a little easy.

    There's a special item which casts mass heal, combined with a spell to recharge it, you almost never need to actually burn spell points healing IIRC. You may have it now, it's been more than a decade since I've played.

    1. It's actually tempting to start over with the same characters and make everything a little easier. If I was playing this game off-blog and didn't have a huge list ahead of me, I might.

      I think you must mean the druid's mace, which casts "heal all." I don't have a charging spell yet, though.

    2. Some encounters are completely random, some are randomized but always appear in a fixed location, and some are totally fixed.

      Type (1), if you run away, don't come back.
      Type (2), if you run away, come back with a different assortment of enemies.
      Type (3), if you run away, don't ever change.

      Type (2) and (3) reset when you leave a map and come back.

  3. Since you asked, I'll just list the damage they apparently do:

    Slicer: 1-30
    Axe of Kalah: 1-12 (melee) 1-20 (ranged)
    Firesword: 1-12
    Lance Sword: 1-20

    1. Feel free to list any others and I'll give spoiler-free damage outputs.

    2. Thanks, but how do you actually get this information from the game?

    3. You don't. It's what I'd a poor design decision.

    4. Yes, me too. I'm really getting sick of games that do this.

    5. It's "realistic!" Even though in real life, you'd probably be able to get someone to tell you whether an axe can do more damage than a sword.

    6. There's also seeing (and feeling) how the weapon handles in addition to seeing the kind of wound it inflicts.

    7. I'm always stunned when they say they have trouble getting accurate data on how much damage various round sizes do and such. Don't a lot of countries still execute people by firing squad? (China still does I think). I'm surprised gun companies haven't quietly agreed to supply weapons and ammunition in exchange for data.

      On the other hand, I could have a lower opinion of your average large companies morals then most people.

  4. I have a PDF file of the Dragon Wars Clue Book that I could send to you. It has a section near the end titled "Weapon Statistics".

    1. If you want to e-mail it to me, I'll be glad to look at it when I'm finished. But I can't use it during play.

  5. Yeah, you definitely went to Byzanople too early. Ah, the perils of nonlinear gaming! Way to tough it out.

    'I couldn't find any productive way to interact with the beast, even though a bartender in a previous city had given me a rumor about the dragon concealing a "powerful gem."'

    You probably don't need it, but here's a hint anyway.

    Qba'g lbh srry fbeel sbe gur cbbe byq qentba? Ur qbrfa'g ybbx irel urnygul ng nyy.

    IIRC you can only carry one gem at a time, but if you use/sell/destroy it you can get another.

    1. I generally don't believe in reloading just because I don't like the result of something. I did it in the slave camp, but only because I didn't fully understand the skill-use mechanism. I didn't have that kind of excuse this time.

  6. Have you been using the macros? I have F1 set to quick fight, attack, attack, attack, attack, wait, wait, yes. Which works even faster then ctrl-a in M&M. Also one to use bandage up to the point you select character to heal is good.

    1. No, I haven't really explored them. You're right that those are two good uses. I'll set those up.

  7. "But in Dragon Wars, there's no recharging of spell points without using expensive (though admittedly plentiful) dragon stones"

    This is why I abandoned this game anno.

  8. When it says "15 Guards 40'" what does the 40' stand for? Level?

    1. It means they are 40 feet away.

    2. And boy do they take a long time to run 12 steps.

  9. I do not remember much of this game, but what I do was that in the end, all my characters had at least low magic.

    Probably for healing, but IIRC, there are a few items which need low magic.

    Also, there is a bow which fires all arrows from a quiver at once.
    There also is a neverempty quiver.

    The result was ... interesting.

    1. I found the bow, but never the quiver. I didn't use bows much in this game. I thought keeping a supply of arrows was too much of a pain. Also, spending a round switching to a melee weapon if the character suddenly found himself or herself in range.

    2. I found that it was handy to give one of my back row mages a few ranks in Bow so that they could have useful attacks when they ran out of spell points. Turns out the Gatlin[g] Bow / Magic Quiver combination makes that mage the most effective (in terms of damage-per-round) fighter in the party.

      I agree that it is not worth your time to give missile weapons to your front row. There are enough melee weapons with range (the Axe of Kalah, the Throw Mace, etc.)

  10. Looks interesting; I tried Bard's Tale, and thought it was boring, empty, pointless, and generally badly designed ("Here's a giant, three level dungeon with teleporters, spinners, locations of magical darkness, and encounters every three steps. It contains exactly one item of interest, which will let you go to the next, equally pointless, dungeon."), so I never bothered with the sequels, and I certainly didn't view "this was going to be Bard's Tale 4" as some kind of selling point. But I think I might have to check it out.

    1. You just described Bard's Tale in a nutshell. You also described Wizardy in a nutshell, except that Wizardry also has the hair-tearing possibility of permadeath. Yet the Wizardry is so popular that it's still going; there was a recent Wizardry release on the PS3.

      Why? Ours is not to reason why...

    2. Is there still permadeath in the later Wizardry games?

    3. There was through W5, anyway.

      I want to defend the Wizardry series a bit because there are subtle differences that I think make the games better than the BT series. There aren't quite as many random combats; the combats are a little quicker, yet (perhaps paradoxically) they involve a better tactical focus; character development is more meaningful; and the games themselves are much shorter. I think permadeath makes W1-5 a bit too hard, but it also gives the games a nail-biting quality you don't get anywhere else.

  11. >there was a recent Wizardry release on the PS3.
    the japanese dungeon crawling rpg fan mass feels that:
    a) -turn based (time),-abstract one dimentional(space),-command choosing rpg maximized for game pads(UI)-types of combat feels much more at home than recent quasi real time non-hex combat
    b) serious adventurers/heroes/saviors earning xp/loot/cash by running tedious errands and doing sunday choirs is kinda cheesy
    c)the grind itself is fun. the repetitious grind and looting treasures allures you into a state of rpg trance where one's soul is at perfect rpg-zen

    btw the skill system we now see everyday was realy cool back then in DW(even if it didn't do much), and the tons of hidden cash of weapons found here an there were also fun to pick up

  12. I'll confess: I look up stuff on the internet far too often when I get stuck on something with a game, and usually feel a bunch of shame for doing so.

    But, at the suggestion of a poster earlier in this blog, I have had no regrets doing so when it comes to looking up weapons/equipment and what they do. There's lot of reasons why I never got too far in this game, but that's one of them.

    It wouldn't likely be so bad if it wasn't a 1d20 or 1d30 setup; there's just way too much variability.


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