Saturday, August 31, 2013

Champions of Krynn: No Time for Losers

The futile quest begins.

Playing a Gold Box game is a little like wandering into a club on Frenchmen Street: What you experience might not be the best show ever, but you're certain to have fun no matter what. This is one of a small handful of games for which I'm slightly annoyed when I have to stop the momentum of the game to take time and blog about it.

Despite enjoying it, I'm not enjoying it as much as either Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds. The game is far more linear than the previous outings, with Sir Karl leading you from quest to quest on a leash, providing the game a more novelesque feel than its predecessors. I tried to buck the prescribed order by making a beeline across the map to the large city on the east side, but it didn't go well.

It's hard to imagine that I'll be able to win this in just a few more levels.

Mostly, however, it's the combat I'm not enjoying as much. I still think the Gold Box engine is one of the best tactical combat engines ever offered in RPGs, but the nature of the enemies I've encountered makes it more difficult to fully appreciate it. This is for a few reasons:

1. My melee fighters might as well be blind. I realize I handicapped myself by eschewing the fighter class and making so many of my characters multi-classed, but damn. At Level 5, my knights' THAC0s are 13 and 14, meaning they'll only hit an enemy with AC0 7 or 8 out of every 20 times. In practice, it seems like even less. I think the THAC0s are comparable to what I saw in the previous games; the issue is that in this game, enemies have much lower ACs than in Pool or Curse. Even spellcasters.

A common scenario is that I'll use spells ("Hold Person" primarily) to get a party of fighters and clerics down to a manageable number, like two fighters and a cleric. A new round begins. Confident that I can hit the cleric before he can cast, thus preventing having to waste any more of my spells, I send Midsummer at him. She misses. I send Dutch at him. He misses and the cleric starts casting a spell. Grave charges him and misses. Coral fires her hoopak at him and misses. He casts "Hold Person" and holds three of my characters. The fighters knock out two of them. I finally sigh and "Hold" the cleric if anyone is still standing who can cast it.

My characters surround the elvish curate but fail to hit him even once.

2. Not being able to rely on melee fighters ever hitting puts a strain on available tactics. I can't say "you take the one on the left, I'll take the one on the right" because there's a decent chance both will miss; success or failure thus comes down to spells. But...

3. Because I multi-classed all of my spellcasters, I've been slow to acquire useful spells. I just got "Fireball" towards the close of the last session. 

One day, I will increase the challenge of a Gold Box game by not selecting "Fireball" as my first third-level spell, but not today.

4. The game isn't pulling any punches as to the enemies it offers. Recall that in Pool of Radiance, I didn't fight my first dragon until the final battle and everyone was Level 8. In this game, I've had dragons at the apex of two maps. In Pool, the worst encounter with spellcasters maybe had one priest and two mages; this game routinely serves up combats with four or five clerics plus both mages and elf fighters also capable of casting "Charm" and "Magic Missile." I've had my entire party wiped out by ghasts and Kapak Draconians, both capable of paralysis, and giant snakes capable of instant-death poison.

Still, I don't mean to suggest that the combats aren't fun or challenging. They are, and I've enjoyed them more than the average RPG, just not more than the average Gold Box game.

In terms of plot, I've explored three areas since I last blogged. When I arrived at the second outpost, Sir Karl gave me two quests: retrieve a silver rose from a graveyard in Jelek, and chase down rumors of a Dragonlance in the Tower of Gargath. I chose Jelek first.

You wouldn't perchance be diverting resources from a war so you can give a gift to your girlfriend, would you?

The gate guards at Jelek saddled me with a multi-classed fighter/surfer named Skyla who had a habit of disappearing just before each random encounter and returning with a suspicious story just after. He kept pressing me to see his "friend" in one part of town.

Someone forgot to tell SSI that it was the 90s.

His "friend" turned out to be a group of guards who tried to kill me as Skyla ran off. A halfling--sorry, Kender--thief aided me during the battle and explained that a group of evil guards had taken over the city, taking orders from a "Sir Lebaum," a corrupted Solamnic knight who was supposed to be dead. The guards had been digging up every grave in the cemetery, stirring up undead, for an unknown reason. I thought it was to find a buried Dragonlance, but later it seemed that the lance had come from somewhere else.

Anyway, the map culminated at the silver rose, which I picked, causing me to be attacked (for some reason) by two black dragons. Capable of spitting acid, they did a number on my party the first two times I tried to fight them. I only won by using a couple Potions of Speed and a lucky casting of "Stinking Cloud." I suppose I should be lucky I killed them at all, since my understanding was that in this universe, only Dragonlances allow mortals to kill dragons.

There didn't seem to be any way to permanently return control of the town to the townsfolk, so I left. I was a bit annoyed that I never encountered Skyla again to kill him, but maybe he shows up later.

The Tower of Gargarth consisted of a town around its base and a multi-leveled tower in which the levels shrank as I climbed up, pursuing the elusive Myrtani, putative leader of the evil forces, and his stolen Dragonlance. Myrtani's forces had completely taken over the town, and it was full of fighters but also oddly clerics leading giant rats and snakes. "Snake Charm," which had previously been helpful in only a single fight in Pool of Radiance, was invaluable here, since snakes can cause instantaneous death. (Technically, this can be reversed with "Neutralize Poison," but that's a Level 4 spell and no one has it yet.)

The tower gave me the first encounters with Kapak Draconians, capable of causing paralysis in their melee attacks. They also dissolve into pools of acid when killed, which can screw up the battlefield.

As I battled up the tower, I met the old castellan, who said he'd hidden the Dragonlance in a secret area. But when I got there, the weapon had already been looted by Myrtani. I finally encountered him in a room where his forces were packing up copper dragon eggs, presumably for later transformation into Draconians.

I killed scores of his minions as I chased him up the tower. I figured the map would end in a battle with Myrtani and my recovery of the Dragonlance, but instead he escaped with it on the back of a red dragon.

Upon my return from Gargath, Sir Karl--without taking the rose or anything--sent me to recover an "item of great fighting prowess" from the tomb of Sir Dargaard, an ancient Knight of the Rose, who I guess appears in the books. The tomb's ghosts put me through a series of moral tests, such as bravely walking through rings of fire even with low hit points, fighting difficult enemies, refusing to take treasure from the tombs, and finding and immediately relinquishing a long sword +5.

What, all the tithing I've been doing isn't enough?

When I passed the tests, I got Solamnic plate for my knights, a Girdle of Giant Strength, and a bunch of experience points.

Only knights can wear Solamnic plate. The developers must have included six in case the player had a party of six knights. That would be a heck of a challenge.

On the way out of the tomb, a party of Draconians attacked (they'd been trying to get into the tomb for a while but couldn't get past the ghosts). It was here that I first faced a Bozak Draconian, spellcasters who explode when slain, damaging everyone around them.

When I returned to the outpost again, it was then that Sir Karl congratulated me on Gargath and thanked me for recovering the silver rose. He gave me some intelligence about a nearby base occupied by "renegade ogres" who might be trying to ally with the good armies. Some of Myrtani's assassins are on the way to kill the leaders, and I guess I have to put a stop to them.

A lot of miscellaneous notes:

  • The copy protection system is mega annoying. When you first load the game each time, you have to answer a question that involves looking up a word in the Adventurer's Journal. That's fine. But at random times when you're saving the game, it demands another word from the rule book, a different document.

  • In a few places, I've found platinum pieces. I don't know if these exist in the Dragonlance world or if it's a programming error. Either way, they convert to steel pieces the next time I visit a shop.
  • Speaking of money, I've learned the hard way not to have the good stuff--jewelry and gems--in the pockets of my knights when we enter an outpost because they "tithe" almost all of it.
  • I haven't found many magic weapons yet. My lead knight has a long sword +2, but my second knight is still using a regular two-handed sword. The only magic two-handed sword I found turned out to be a cursed one.

This is why we wait until we get back to town to identify things before equipping them.

  • I've promoted both of my knights to Knights of the Rose, the highest level available. I was surprised how quickly this was possible. The manual didn't really suggest any downside to these promotions (except the money thing, which I've solved by just transferring it out of their hands before entering outposts), and I thought it made sense to take them for role-playing reasons.
  • I found Gauntlets of Ogre Power in some cache and gave them to my Kender thief. It's really improved her backstabbing ability.

I love a successful backstab almost as much as a fireball.

  • The number of spell slots available to mages waxes and wanes with the moons. White mages and red mages get an extra two bonus spell slots (usable at any level) when their respective moons are full. This makes a big difference. For my red mage right now, it's the difference between memorizing three "fireballs" or only one.
  • You can drink all you want in taverns and you won't get drunk. The "tavern tales" you get are mini journal entries that give rumors and hints as to the world. The previous two games also featured them, but I don't think I really mentioned them.

"I hear they're going to be hiring mercenaries down in Sanction. I say we get out of this hick town and go down to where the real action is."

  • Wilderness battles are as annoying here as in the previous two games. The enemies start too far away and it takes too long just to find each other.
  • I've been mapping every area. I really like mapping.

My map of Jelek. The large open area is the graveyard.

  • Jelek had a magic shop. Everything was too expensive for me right now, but it's nice to know that all my riches won't go to waste.

I'll be back.

  • At one point, the game told me that I was "attacked by minions of Takhisis." Considering I hadn't heard anything about Takhisis (the evil goddess from the books) so far, I think that's a bit of a spoiler.

This guy and Skyla need to form a band.
What I like most about the game is the frequent role-playing choices that it provides. I think there have been more so far than in all of Pool of Radiance. The series of screen shots below shows some examples.

Instead of just saddling you with NPCs, it gives you the option to refuse them. Not that I'd refuse her. Hubba hubba.
There were several places in both cities where I could try to bluff my way past guards.

Do I trust this guy who says he works for Sir Karl?

Given my position, it's hard to imagine that he doesn't already see me.

Instead of fighting these evil guards, I had the option to gamble with them. I lost and then killed them.

These choices, though they all lead to the same place, are welcome in an era when "role-playing games" offered precious few role-playing opportunities. I hope that an increase in such choices is a major theme of the 1990s. Don't disillusion me if it's not.

I'm particularly curious if there was a way to approach the tomb of Sir Dargaard "evilly" by looting it or refusing to give up the long sword +5. I have to remember to write all these things down to look up in a walkthrough later.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Game 113: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (1982)

"Sure, call it whatever you want. Just send us the check." -- TSR

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a 1982 game for the Intellivision console, later renamed with the subtitle Cloudy Mountain to avoid confusion with 1983's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. It is a barely-passable action game, not under the most liberal of definitions an RPG, and having about as much to do with Dungeons & Dragons as Pac-Man. In a recent comment, Harland suggested that Mattel's policy was to cover its bases by "acquiring licenses from everyone no matter how tenuous the connection," but I suspect their motivation was less avoiding legal problems and more trying to fool D&D fans into thinking this game was in any way related.

Despite Cush1978's warnings about the game's lack of CRPG elements, I wanted to play it because it's really the first officially-licensed Dungeons & Dragons game for anything resembling a computer. Wikipedia's list of Dungeons & Dragons video games starts with dnd and Don Daglow's Dungeon, but these weren't licensed and if we're going to include them, we need to include pretty much every CRPG in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The next games, Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game and Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game, both also by Mattel, are electronic toys. This and Treasure of Tarmin are the only other D&D titles that precede Pool of Radiance, and unless Tarmin turns out to be unusually good, it seems that Pool was the first game to remotely replicate the D&D experience on a computer or console.

The game takes place on a map in which you have to navigate between your house and the titular Cloudy Mountain, where your goal is to re-unite two pieces of the Crown of Kings. The trick is that only certain mountains in the ranges are navigable (randomized for each game). These initially appear as black, but as you approach them, they change color to gray, blue, red, or purple, indicating their relative difficulties. You must cleave a path through the right series of mountains to reach Cloudy Mountain.

Hewing through the forest with an axe, on my way to Cloudy Mountain.

Each navigable mountain, when "entered," turns into a moderate-sized labyrinth of caves. You explore, kill or avoid monsters, look for tools and arrows, and ultimately try to find the ladder leading out to the other side of the mountain. Then, you can proceed to the next one.

Making it to the exit. I honestly don't know what that skull is there for. There's at least one in every dungeon.

At some point, you'll probably have to navigate the river, forest, or gates (or all three), meaning you have to find a boat, an axe, or a key among the dungeon's treasures. I say "probably" because there is at least one potential path that avoids all of these obstacles but involves crossing more dungeons.

Finding a key.

The difficult gameplay all takes place in the caves. You have only one weapon--a bow--and you start the game with only three arrows. Since many enemies take two or three arrows to kill, finding more arrows is an immediate priority. If you run out of arrows, you have no options against the monsters, as most monsters cannot be outrun. You have three "lives" and each life has essentially three hit points, with the character proceeding from black to blue to red before dying.

Coming upon a quiver of arrows. I think the fuzzy creature above it is supposed to be a spider. They steal arrows.

The game is innovative in its use of sound. Most computer RPGs of the era either had no sound or were best played with the sound off. I can't think of any CRPGs from the 1980s in which sound was essential to the game. In this game, it is. You have to listen carefully for the sounds of movement or snoring to know if there are monsters in the corridors ahead. If so, you must either avoid the corridors or shoot arrows down them ahead of you. Arrows bounce off angled walls at 90 degrees, and mastering this banking is key to killing monsters before they're suddenly on top of you, at which point you'll almost certainly die. (Arrows bounce directly back at you when fired at flat surfaces, a mechanic responsible for more than one of my deaths.)

A snake and a blob north of me. Snakes are fast and deadly. Blobs are slow but cannot be killed.

Almost equally important is the need for sound to determine how many arrows you have left. The number never appears anywhere on the screen. Instead, when you press one of the commands, the game "bips" at you once for every arrow you have.

About to get killed by a dragon while near a piece of the crown.

If you make it to Cloudy Mountain, you must explore the dungeon until you find both halves of the crown. Each is guarded by a dragon that takes several hits to kill. If you manage to unite the crown, the game "rewards" you with an overland shot showing a crown sitting on top of Cloudy Mountain. The challenge is to then try again at the next-highest difficulty level.


If the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge was an RPG, it would be the first console RPG. Since it's not, that distinction seems to go to DragonStomper for the Atari 2600, which I'll play eventually. Anyway, the cartridge only took me three hours to win--one to figure out the Nostalgia Intellivison emulator, one to master the controls, and one to win (albeit on the easiest level)--so I figured I'd write about it anyway. [Later edit: I was wrong; I actually won it on the second-highest level. I was forgetting that the numeric keypad keys are reversed.] There is honestly not the slightest reason to play this game today, especially if you first played it when you were four years old and remember it as the greatest game ever. Like trying to watch Knight Rider or Three's Company today, it will spoil your memories.

I never had an Intellivision as a kid and thus have no rose-colored memories about it. I was reading about the controller...

...and I have to say that I find it a bit baffling. My understanding is that you controlled the dial with the thumb of one hand while operating the keypad with the other. The dial is innovative, I grant, and a precursor to the left navigation sticks of modern controllers, but why on earth would they orient the keypad so that it was above the dial instead of to its right? I can't imagine playing with your hands on top of each other is very comfortable or intuitive. The emulator uses the arrow keys to maneuver, rendering 16 potential directions into just 4, but the keypad maps well to the numeric keypad, if upside-down.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is credited to Tom Loughry, who developed several games for Mattel before moving to Accolade in the late 1980s. Other than the sequel to this game, Treasures of Tarmin, we won't see him again, as he seems to have specialized in racing and sports games.

On my GIMLET scale, the Cartridge ties with Braminar as the lowest-rated game ever, at 9. It was hurt by 0s in the key "Character Creation and Development," "NPCs," "Equipment," and "Economy" categories. But at least it served to produce a blog entry during a few days when I didn't have time to play Champions of Krynn.

A lot of people see similarities between this game and the old Adventure cartridge for the Atari 2600, particularly since this game was called Adventure before getting the AD&D license. I think the similarities are there, but slight. It's more interesting to compare it to the computer RPGs that came out in 1981 and 1982. By this year, we already had Wizardry and Wizardry II, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ultima I and Ultima II, and Telengard (the latter of which most resembles this game graphically). Any one of them better exemplifies the AD&D spirit, offering a greater depth of gameplay, than the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge. We can debate when console RPGs finally caught up with computer RPGs, or if they ever did, but it's clear that in these early days, they had a long, long way to go.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Game 112: Champions of Krynn (1990)

Champions of Krynn
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, Amiga, Apple II, 1992 for PC-98
Date Started: 27 August 2013
Champions of Krynn is not screwing around. Although it starts a new series, it seems to expect that the player has some experience with Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds and isn't particularly interested in battling groups of orcs and kobolds again. There's no easy introductory area. The first battle pits you against Draconians, an enemy unique to this campaign setting, and within the course of the first map, you're fighting difficult battles against spellcasters. The final fight of the first city features two dragons. The game is also very plot-heavy (at least during the opening stages), giving a greater sense of participating in an unfolding novel.

As much as I love the "Gold Box" engine, I'll be surprised if I'm not a bit fatigued by it come next year. 1990 saw the release of Champions of Krynn, Secret of the Silver Blades, and Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, and we got three more Gold Box games in 1991--four if you count the online Neverwinter Nights. (It might be worth reviewing my coverage of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds for the origins of the Gold Box series.)

Nonetheless, although they use the same engine, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they all look and feel exactly the same. As you can see from even the opening screen, between editions the games made incremental improvements in things like graphics, sound effects, music, interface, implementation of D&D rules, and other gameplay elements. Champions starts with an arresting musical number that takes full advantage of the latest sound devices (I have it set to CMS/Game Blaster). The graphics, while not yet composed for VGA (we'll have to wait for the 1991 series for that), still benefit from greater artistic effort. There's a new "level" setting that adjusts the difficulty of combat, and the game supports the use of a mouse or joystick, though I'll happily stick with the keyboard.

This opening image is better than anything the previous games accomplished in 16 colors.

Release dates are hard to nail down for 1990, so I'm not sure if Champions is the first, second, or third Gold Box game from 1990 (and thus the third, fourth, or fifth game overall), but it's probably the first released outside the Forgotten Realms series. As such, it offers the rare but interesting experience of playing a game in a familiar engine, and with familiar rules, but having to learn an entirely new setting, history, and lore.

The Forgotten Realms universe has always reminded me a bit of Los Angeles: a sprawling gallimaufry with no central core. The Dragonlance universe, in contrast, reminds me of nearby Irvine: a little sterile in its sense of being planned. Dragonlance was created by the husband-wife team of Laura and Tracy Hickman, and fleshed out in a series of novels by the Hickmans and Margaret Weis. I'm getting the following summary from various wikis, so my apologies if I misinterpret anything: Krynn is the world of the Dragonlance setting, and it is characterized by constant struggle among the various gods who created and influence it. These include Paladine (god of good), Gilean (neutrality), and Takhisis (evil). In the creation of the world, the gods created races that embodied their traits: elves from Paladine, humans from Gilean, and ogres from Takhisis. The god of crafts and forging, Reorx, tried to teach metalwork to humans, got annoyed at their irreverence, and turned a bunch of them into gnomes as punishment. Dwarves and Kender are races perverted from gnomes.

The character creation process is nearly identical to the previous games except for new races.
The history of Krynn is divided into five ages. The Age of Starbirth brought the creation of the world and its races. The Age of Dreams is marked by a series of Dragon Wars, conflicts between armies using dragons, who were created by Paladine but corrupted by Takhisis. During the third such war, Dragonlances were formed. They are the only weapons powerful enough to allow mortals to kill dragons.

In the Age of Might, a great nation called Istar arose on Krynn's main continent, Ansalon. The Kingpriest of Istar sought to rule the world and eradicate all evil but was naturally corrupted by his own ambition. When he began to challenge the gods themselves, they hurled a fiery mountain at Istar and destroyed it. The event became known as the Cataclysm, and the age that follows was called the Age of Despair, characterized by constant warfare. The culmination of this era was the War of the Lance, an attempt by Takhisis to conquer Krynn with evil dragons and armies of various types of Draconians, created out of the corrupted eggs of good dragons (Takhisis had been holding these eggs hostage to keep the good dragons from entering the war against her). The war was turned and won through the efforts of ten multi-racial champions of Paladine, called the Heroes of the Lance, and an ancient chivalric order called the Knights of Solamnia.

The last age, the Age of Mortals, sees further wars against evil dragons, the loss of immortality by the gods, and the eventual death of Takhisis. It is, I understand, the period of the current novels.

Champions of Krynn takes place during the Age of Despair, after the end of the War of the Lance, around a group of cities that were overrun by evil forces during the war. The Knights of Solomnia, entrenched in an outpost near the city of Throtl (occupied by hobgoblins), have been on a campaign to clean the area of evil forces. But lately, the commandant of the knights has been acting erratic, as if under the influence of an evil spell. A Knight of the Rose named Sir Karl has been dispatched to the outpost to evaluate the situation; the player's party of adventurers has accompanied him; and the game begins as Karl asks them to patrol the area and report back on the disposition of any evil forces.

I guess to fit within the paradigm of D&D rules, Dragonlance had to offer essentially the same (or similar) races. Otherwise, I can't account for how, in creating a brand new universe, the races still boiled down to humans, elves, dwarves, and half-elves, with the Kender substituted for halflings. There are, nonetheless, some unique variations. Dwarves are divided into hill dwarves (stubborn, hardy, rough) and mountain dwarves (more refined); elves into Silvanesti elves (tall, arrogant) and Qualinesti elves (shorter, friendlier). The Kender are characterized by curiosity, an odd sense of bravery given their size, the ability to "taunt" opponents into a mindless rage, and the ability to use a special staff-sling weapon called a hoopak. I'm sure that there are more subtle differences between these races and their Forgotten Realms counterparts that my more experienced readers can flesh out.

As with the Forgotten Realms gold box games, there are class restrictions and level restrictions based on race; unlike the Forgotten Realms games, they're not so strict as to make non-human races entirely unplayable. (To be sure, I followed PetrusOctavianus's advice and looked at the tables for the third game in the series, The Dark Queen of Krynn.) Elves can rise to maximum levels as clerics, rangers, and mages, and dwarves can go the distance as fighters. Knights are a new class in this series that only humans can max in. They exist in three levels--Crown, Sword, and Rose--and must tithe percentages of whatever money they carry every time they enter an outpost. Like paladins in the Forgotten Realms, they have the ability to cast cleric spells after Level 6. (Paladins don't exist in this game but apparently become available in the second entry, Death Knights of Krynn.) Beyond this addition, the classes are composed of the standard variety: fighters, rangers, clerics, mages, and thieves. Multi-classing rules are the same as in Forgotten Realms, and there are no dual classes.

After studying the manual a bit, I decided to go with this party:

  • Midsummer, a lawful good female human knight
  • Dutch, a lawful good male human knight
  • Grave, a chaotic good male Silvanesti elf ranger/cleric of the god Kiri-Jouth
  • Atmos, a lawful good male Qualinesti elf cleric of Majere/white mage
  • Squirrel, a true neutral female Qualinesti elf red mage/thief
  • Coral, a neutral good female Kender cleric of Mishakal/thief

"Weeeeeeee are the Champions of Krynn..."

I went with so many multi-classed characters because they just make sense in this game. With development capped by level rather than experience points, a multi-classed character can get a lot farther than a single-classed one. Plus, it limits the likelihood that I'll bump against the caps and thus become annoyed with random combats. I figured it made sense to have multiple characters with both mage and cleric spells, and to explore the different types of mages and clerics. I like the idea of two thieves for the backstabbing ability. Between a cleric's armor and a thief's backstab, no one here is useless in melee combat.

I originally was going to go with a dwarf fighter for the second character but ultimately decided not to because screw dwarves. This way, a single knight doesn't have to ride herd on this ragtag bunch by herself.

Alignment has a more interesting role in this game than in the Forgotten Realms series. First, given the name of the game, it dispenses with any notion that you can role-play an evil party. Everyone is good or neutral. For mages, alignment determines the type of mage (red or white; each has different spells, though drawn from the usual list); for clerics, it determines the available gods, each of which conveys certain bonuses. For instance, clerics of Majere turn undead at two levels higher than normal. Clerics of Mishakal get extra spells.

Although I like the idea of creating your own character icons, I'm no good at it. The icons that SSI presents in its demo reels and NPCs always look much more interesting and sophisticated than mine. Here's a comparison:

Note the colorful and interesting outfits on these three demo characters.

And my pathetic attempts.

The game begins when the party accompanies Sir Karl on his mission to the outpost near Throtl. While he conducts his investigation, he directs the party to equip themselves, memorize spells, and scout the surrounding area, noting (via journal entry) that the worst monsters seen in the area have been hobgoblins. The process of purchasing equipment was a little odd in that the armory (unlike the shops in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds) didn't have every item in the D&D catalog, just a handful of the most necessary items for the major classes.

The paltry selection of equipment in the starting town.

I was also interested to see that each character started with thousands of experience points, in some cases enough to make him or her Level 2 or 3 right at the beginning. I'd been assuming that we'd start as rank amateurs as usual.

The outpost was just a menu town, so as soon as I was ready, I hit the open road. Just one step later, I ran into a special encounter: a company of Draconians slaughtering women and children in a caravan. Combat began with a quartet of the creatures, Draconians of the Baaz type, who turn into stone when slain and thus trap the weapon of the character who struck the killing blow. He can retrieve it after the battle but must otherwise fight weaponless unless he has a backup. Well into the first maps, I kept forgetting to re-equip weapons lost in this manner, and I'd suddenly find that one of my knights was fighting with his fists.

The battle wasn't hard, and afterwards the game indicated that the last surviving Draconian took some kind of book from one of the dead bodies and disappeared. The women and children asked me to escort them to the outpost. It wasn't much of a role-playing choice, but it was a choice nonetheless.

The overland map is smaller, with fewer features, than the previous games.

Returning to the commandant's office, I found Sir Karl in the process of slaying the commandant, whose body immediately turned into a Sivak Draconian, shapeshifters who are able to fly. Indicating that the situation was "graver than he feared," he sent me to Throtl to find a knight named Caramon, one of the titular Heroes of the Lance and (I gather) a major character in the novels.

Throtl consisted of two 16 x 16 maps. Though the size was the usual Gold Box standard, the maps took me much longer to navigate than any previous game's, partly because the combats were so difficult (common enemies were clerics, mages, mid-level fighters, hobgoblins, Draconians, and undead) and partly because there was so much plot exposition. It transpired that someone named Myrtani had re-discovered the process used to convert good dragon eggs to Draconians, and the rituals were being performed in the catacombs of the city. As I battled forward, the enemy legions--satisfyingly scared of me--desperately tried to salvage what they could of the eggs and their documentation on the process and to flee before I could catch up to them. The maps culminated in a battle with priests at an altar, but many of the enemies escaped and I never did catch up with Myrtani.

During the process, I found Caramon in chains and freed him. Shortly afterwords, a young elven girl named Maya showed up and took him back to the outpost. There was a strong suggestion that she was a dragon in human form, and perhaps involved in some kind of relationship with Sir Karl.

The game continues the use of journal paragraphs to relay key situations and conversations.

Towards the end of Throtl, there were a few rumors that someone else was circumventing Myrtani to direct the corruption of the eggs, and that the enemy was withdrawing its forces (and eggs) to a keep called Gargath.

There were a lot of overheard conversations in the first map.

My initial attempt to fight the final battle against hobgoblins and two white dragons resulted in a full-party death, thanks to the dragons' breath attacks. On a reload, I memorized "Resist Cold" and cast it on all party members. That did the trick. When I returned to the outpost, I got a mission from Sir Karl to take word to the outpost near Gargath and to investigate the Tower of Gargath.

Some stray observations on my first outing:

  • The game presents the player with a number of light role-playing choices, usually having to do with whether to attack or flee, but sometimes offering the ability to parlay with monsters instead of immediately fighting them. It's more than most games of the era offer.

  • I had to retreat from the city several times during the first maps, return to the outpost, and train my characters to the next levels. By the end of the first two maps, many of my characters were Level 4 out of a game maximum of only 8 levels.
  • Most of my characters are awful shots. Even at higher levels, they miss the vast majority of their attacks. So do the enemies, fortunately.
  • The Forgotten Realms games didn't introduce combats of this difficulty until after my mages had developed mass-damage spells. Lacking those, I've been relying much more on lower-level spells like "Hold Person" and "Sleep." The game introduced a much more significant tactical challenge than I found in either Pool or Curse.
Against other clerics and mages, this spell is a lifesaver.
  • I was just complimenting Dragon Fire for spicing up the game with creative room descriptions. Well, Champions does that, too. It was almost a little jarring to find in-text descriptions like the one below with nothing to actually find or do in the room.

  • Visually, unfortunately, the dungeons remain uniform, drab, and boring. I was hoping the latest installment would offer better textures and something more interesting to look at.
  • The "Enlarge" spell, so useful in Curse, doesn't work in this game. My characters resist it, as if an enemy is trying to cast an offensive spell at them. This even happens in camp.
  • The major unit of currency of the Dragonlance world is "steel pieces." (It strikes me as kind of stupid to make your currency unit something needed for armor and weapons and such.) So far in the game, I haven't found a mother lode, but neither have I been to a shop with anything worth buying.
  • Combat initiative seems less dependent on random rolls and more dependent on dexterity. My characters almost always go in the same order.
  • The game awards miscellaneous experience for hitting plot points. I don't remember that happening in Pool or Curse.
So far, it's been a fun and challenging game, with enough variances from the previous two entries to keep me interested, but retaining what's best about the Gold Box series. I don't find the plot compelling just yet, but perhaps it's simply because I have no investment in this campaign setting. We'll see if it grows on me. I'm curious what my readers think of the Dragonlance setting compared to the Forgotten Realms.