Friday, January 31, 2014

Spirit of Excalibur: If not Always the Letter

Morgan's castle is something out of Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings, not Arthurian literature.

King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Excalibur, and other people and elements in the Arthurian legends are so well-known that you wonder why there aren't more role-playing games in this setting. I'm aware only of this one, its sequel, Legion: The Legend of Excalibur (2002), King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame (2009), and the Dark Age of Camelot series of MMORPGs. 

Perhaps one reason has to do with the non-fantastical nature of the Arthurian mythos. The core texts are more concerned with quasi-historical events and interpersonal relationships than anything to do with magic or the supernatural. Dragons rarely make any kind of appearance. There are no armies of goblins or orcs, no undead creatures. There are a few notable exceptions, to be sure--we have the enigmatic Questing Beast, the occasional giant, and a few other bizarre creatures in Welsh legend--but usually Knights of the Round Table are fighting each other, not monsters.

The nature of magic is also a bit underwhelming to those raised on D&D-style fantasy. In contrast to what you might see in some television and film adaptations of the Arthurian legends, the original texts rarely feature stark magic. No one waves a wand or shoots fireballs. Merlin is more sage than mage, and his abilities are either unobservable (e.g., precognition) or nebulous. The mechanism by which he changes Uther's likeness to that of the Duke of Cornwall, for instance, is never explicitly stated. He might have just made a really good mask. The few supernatural elements that do appear front-and-center are generally spiritual--explicitly Christian--and not arcane.

Magic items are also quite rare. Excalibur is just an awesome sword; it doesn't raise the wielder's strength or do fire damage. Again, there are a couple of exceptions. In some texts, Excalibur's scabbard prevents the wearer from losing blood, for instance. There's the love potion that ensorcelled Tristan and Isolde, plus a fun subset of legends in which some magic object--a drinking horn or cloak, usually--tests everyone's faithfulness. In general, though, magic items are unique artifacts and not something you just pick up in a shop.

Setting an RPG in Arthur's Britain, then, requires either going against familiar high-fantasy RPG expectations or forcing Arthuriana into them. Spirit of Excalibur does the latter. Nineve and some of the knights are capable of casting named spells, and there are fearsome beasts on the roadways. (Episode Five promises to have Morgan le Fay flooding Britain with demons.) There are magic items to find and wield (e.g., "Gauntlets of Power") and potions to drink. I realize that you almost have to do these things when adapting for an audience bred on D&D, but it does remove some of the gritty realism of the original stories.

I'm pretty sure "gaunts d'poeir" isn't proper French.

In terms of characters, the game cleaves to the legend in some areas but not in others. The list of knights that become available to the player as the game goes on are mostly drawn from Malory, they're mostly still alive at the end of the book, and Malory's sources, at least, include a brief episode in which they participate in the war against Mordred's sons. The whole episode doesn't seem quite as involved and dramatic as what's going on in the game, but the game certainly isn't non-canonical in its overall plot.

There are some violations of tradition that wouldn't bother most players but do jar me a bit. The distribution of knights among the cities of Britain is nonsensical. Most are allies of Lancelot and ought to be in France at the time the game begins, not ruling places like Dover. Peredur shows up as the head of Wroxeter; he's the Welsh version of Percival and either ought to be in Sarras or not in a game derived from French versions of the legend. The portrayal of Morgan le Fay is a little cartoonish in its villainy; in the legends, her character, while often antagonistic to Arthur and his knights, is not actually evil. In most of them, she is Arthur's half-sister, and dutifully bears his body to Avalon after the final battle.

But all of these pale in comparison to the worst offense: when the player encounters Lancelot in Episode Two, Lancelot is in the midst of seeking the Holy Grail. The Grail Quest, which occurred some years before Mordred's rebellion, absolutely ruined the Round Table, and the whole lesson of the quest was that the Grail could not be retrieved or possessed--in fact, it was taken into Heaven at the conclusion of the quest. I can't imagine why Lancelot is out looking for the Grail in Cardiff.

I didn't just find the Holy Grail sitting on a table, right?

Perhaps I'm talking so much about Arthurian lore because I don't really want to talk about the game, which I don't really like. Spirit of Excalibur is difficult and exhausting, forcing you to play each scenario multiple times to achieve an optimum outcome, and even then you might have lost a character, or forgotten to pick up an item, that turns out to be vital in a later scenario. At the beginning of a scenario, it has no compunction letting you send the wrong character off to the wrong side of Britain, with the wrong equipment. You do your best to complete a scenario only to realize two hours later that you were doomed the moment you left Camelot and sent Baudwin east instead of west.

It's possible that players of a different bent will like the mechanic, with the campaign/scene dichotomy, but I don't. I didn't like it in War in Middle Earth, either. I don't mind fielding massive armies in epic battles outside London's walls, and I don't mind exploring castles and bribing individual peasants to give me keys, but I don't like doing both simultaneously.

Melehan appears in the north and begins his slow march. Scrambling around to get everything in place before he reaches London is a key dynamic of Scenario 2.

Scenario Two begins with a large army of Saxons on the march to London, which you don't yet control. A rumor of an army amassing in Scotland, though it starts the scenario, is less pressing than stopping this Saxon threat. Once you defeat the Saxons, Melehan's army begins its march in the north and starts burning cities on the way to London.

Defeating the Saxons at London leaves it under Constantine's control.

To contend with both, you must raise armies, send them to London, and unify them under a single commander. Two armies are already available at Lincoln and Leicester, thanks to the events of the first scenario, and two more can be found in Dover and Arundel (both relatively close to Camelot) by solving a couple of quick quests. These are enough to defeat the Saxons. To win the battle against Melehan, you need to find and rescue Lancelot.

Hector rescues Lancelot. Hector is Lancelot's brother, not his "friend," though maybe Lancelot can't tell because of the visor and all.

After you do, a bunch of armies belonging to his allies suddenly become available.

I direct armies to London to await Melehan.

This description sounds easy enough, but it took me about nine tries to get it right. The relentless march of the Saxon and Scottish armies imposes a time limit on the scenario, and you really have no clue as to what direction to go when the scenario begins. There are innumerable ways to screw it up. Some examples:

  • Arundel's armies become available once you rescue an abducted maiden from a Saxon named Cynewulf. But he moves fast out of Arundel, so you have to choose one of your fast knights to catch up to him before he maxes it all the way back to the main Saxon army. After some experimentation, I was able to accomplish it with Lavain.
  • Dover's quest is to defeat a demonic creature wandering around outside, which requires a particularly strong knight.

Constantine fights a . . . something.

(Dover is oddly ruled by Palomides, one of my favorite characters from the legends. As a Saracen, he's out of place in Britain, but he still manages to find a seat at the Round Table. His story is characterized by his doomed love for Isolde. He was a strong, courageous, and noble knight, and in a fair world, he might have had a chance with her--if not for that pesky love potion, which of course he doesn't know about. He just has to sit there and watch the love of his life constantly and inexplicably pining for some vainglorious jock.)

  • To find Lancelot, you first have to get a clue from a peasant in a hut (which requires some exploration, which you don't have time for). Then, you have to go to Glastonbury to speak to Sir Bors, only Bors (having thrown off his armor for friar's robes) is bitter at the Round Table and won't talk to a knight. Fine, I thought the first time; I'll send Nineve. But it turns out he won't speak to her, either. You have to send the priest, Baudwin, who is the absolutely slowest-moving character you have. You basically have to start him heading to Glastonbury from Camelot as soon as the scenario starts if you want to find Lancelot in time.

I get it. It's 'cause I'm a woman.

(Bors's piety is, perhaps, a nod to his status as one of the successful "Grail Heroes" in the Vulgate/Malory version of the legends. Galahad succeeds in the quest because he's basically Jesus Christ; Percival succeeds because of his innocence; and Bors succeeds because he passes a series of dogmatic tests. The Grail Quest culminates at Corbenic, where Galahad, Percival, and Bors participate in a mass while Lancelot is allowed to watch from a distance. Galahad and Percival go on to Sarras and ultimately die, while Bors returns to Camelot to recount the adventures.)

  • But before the party seeking Lancelot can get to Glastonbury, a maiden pops up and asks for help rescuing her imprisoned sister. If you decline, you lose significant "nobility" points, so you have to accept. Only you don't want to accept with Baudwin, because he's useless against the evil knight and he doesn't have time to get all the way to Lyonesse and back anyway. Thus, even though your intelligence is specifically that Bors won't speak to a knight, you have to send a knight to Glastonbury first to run interference on the maiden's quest, then send Baudwin behind him.

I certainly didn't mind killing this guy. What a jackass.

  • Bors tells Baudwin that Lancelot has gone to seek the Holy Grail in Escavalon (which, according to the game map, is southern Wales). To figure out where he is, you have to break into a study in Cardiff and study a map. To get into the study, you have to get the key from the castle's steward, who is inexplicably a few cities away in Caerwent. To get his location, you first have to bribe a peasant woman outside Cardiff. In both cases, you have to have thought to give the knight in question some money from the castle's treasury. It took me forever searching around Wales for Lancelot to think of bribing the woman.

At this point, you can bribe the castellan for a key, or kill him and take it off his body. The latter results in a loss of "nobility."

Once you reach the castle where Lancelot is being held, you have to fight consecutive battles with five guards and then a necromancer. I found that only the best knight could win this battle, and even then I needed some potions that I had to have brought from Camelot way back at the beginning.

Amidst all of this, there are a couple dozen other locations to visit if you like, some with clues, some with random combat against challengers, some with items like spell reagents to buy. Again, it takes a lot of experimentation, trial, and error to find the best path through the scenario, and the "best path" means sending the right people, with the right equipment, in the right directions as soon as you leave Camelot.

Well, thanks. That was helpful. Glad I stopped.

It is possible to win against Melehan without Lancelot and his armies, but given that the scenario is called "The Return of Lancelot du Lac," my guess is that it screws you up in later episodes if you do. Also, I couldn't do it without losing a bunch of named knights and characters, and my suspicion is that you generally want named characters to stay alive. I've been reloading if they die. The game is hard enough without that.

The one-on-one combats depend far too much on luck. Sometimes, one of my knights will enter combat and die instantly, only to defeat his enemy without taking a single wound on a reload. My battle with the necromancer holding Lancelot was the hardest. He casts spells continually, preventing you from getting in an attack. Basically, I had to keep reloading until my knight was able to shrug off the first barrage of magic missiles and actually get close enough to hit him.

Army combats are a little more deterministic. As you fight, the game scrolls methodically through each of the individual units on the field, determining how much damage they take or how many soldiers they lose. I've seen very little variance in these figures no matter what tactics I adopt in battle (and there really aren't that many). After each round, you're given a chance to withdraw, at which point the attacker marks time for a few turns before attacking again. Even though I could have defeated the Saxons the first time, I used the option to withdraw three or four times to prolong the invasion so I had more time to find Lancelot in advance of Melehan's march.

My huge army takes on Melehan's forces in the final battle of the scenario.

As I found out the hard way, having multiple armies in the same city accomplishes nothing if they're not unified under the same commander. Otherwise, only one of them will fight in the battle. Unifying them is harder than it sounds. When you bring an army to a city where another army already sits, it gives you the option to "join" them, but only if you don't "stop and talk" first. If you do the latter, then you have to send the army out of the city and re-enter to join it to the first. Second, some knights always challenge each other to a duel, so you never get the "join" option. This was especially true of Bors. I wanted his army for the battle against Melehan, but he wanted to fight practically every knight in London. I spent a long time juggling various armies around, sending them in and out of London--all while Melehan was marching relentlessly towards me--before I gave up and decided I needed everyone else more than Bors. Overall, the process of managing parties is too annoying.

Dammit, Bors! We have bigger fish to fry.

Scenario Two ends with Melehan's defeat. Even though he "dies" on the combat screen, the game notes cryptically that his body isn't found among the dead. The scenario ends with a cutscene in which Morgan le Fay, I guess the "big bad" of the game, upbraids Melehan and Morgolon for their failures.

Really? A bare midriff? The woman has to be about 75 by now.

A few other notes:

  • Characters gain "combat points" for successful one-on-one combats, "nobility points" for doing good deeds, and "faith points" for spending time in abbeys and churches. These are the only methods of "character development" that prevent me from designating the game not-an-RPG.

Lavain gains a nobility point and a combat point rescuing the maiden from Cynewulf.

  • If Constantine dies, the game immediately ends. Anyone else can die, and the game continues, although I suspect this can place you in a "walking dead" scenario for later chapters.

If Constantine dies, Britain enters the "Dark Ages." I'm pretty sure this happens anyway.

  • You can search defeated knights for a few bits of gold. I haven't found much use for gold except bribing people for information.
  • I haven't experimented much with magic. Nineve is capable of spells like "Defend Spell," "Charm Spell," and "Shield Spell," but these use up reagents and magic power (of which she only has a limited amount per scenario). I've found it most useful to keep her with the main army and cast "Healing Spell" on heroes that suffer wounds. Each hero can suffer four wounds before dying.

Casting a spell in the midst of combat.

  • Some of the cities just feature outdoor screens where you can talk to a resident. Others have castles, monasteries, or other buildings you can enter and perhaps explore a couple of rooms. Usually, they're empty except when required by the plot.

  • The armor the knights wear is colored based on their "nobility" rating. The lighter the better.
  • The scenarios end when you've accomplished the main goals. You can't linger and explore after the main threat is over.

Episode 3 begins, whether I want it to or not.

  • In this (DOS) version, the music is okay, but it's so relentless and repetitive that I've been playing with the sound off. I don't think there are any other sound effects.
  • I'm not in love with the controls. The mouse is extremely sensitive, and clicking in slightly the wrong area can cause you to lose whatever submenu you're in.

Scenario Three opens with the arrival of a giant at Camelot. He stands outside and challenges anyone who wants to come out and fight him. This is a common Arthurian trope, most notably in the "Beheading Game" series of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I soon discovered, he's unbeatable (he has magical protection and won't take a single wound), and unlike the Green Knight, he doesn't just laugh and go away. He keeps standing there demanding victims. The only way I've found to spare my knights' lives is to withdraw immediately at the beginning of combat, but this makes them lose nobility points. Meanwhile, Lancelot and Nineve are approaching Camelot from one direction and Bedivere and Dinas from another (I don't know why they were even away). Anyone who reaches Camelot immediately dies at the hands of the giant, so I have to send them somewhere else.

Nineve ineffectually casts spells while Lancelot lies dead in front of the giant. I think I need to reload.

Melehan has arrived from the north with another huge army, and he immediately sacks and burns York before starting a march south. And a party of bandits is raiding and pillaging the east. None of my knights can leave Camelot and go command their armies until I deal with the giant. I can tell I have a long session of trial-and-error ahead of me before I can figure out how to navigate this one.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Game 137: Spirit of Excalibur (1990)

Excalibur is named as Arthur's sword going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1130s) and Welsh legend, but it's not until the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (c. 1230-1240) that he's specifically said to have gotten it from the Lady of the Lake. This scene, including the sunset and the Lady's glove, is directly inspired by the concluding scene of John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Oh, yes. You're getting schooled on this one.
Spirit of Excalibur
United States
Synergistic Software (developer); Virgin Mastertronic (publisher)
Released 1990 for Amiga, Macintosh, Atari ST, and DOS; 1991 for Apple IIgs and Commodore CDTV
Date Started: 29 January 2014
In about 1988 or 1989--I would have been a sophomore in high school--I caught a bit of Excalibur on some UHF station. I don't think I watched much of it, but it got me thinking that while I'd heard about "King Arthur" and the "Knights of the Round Table" in various places, I didn't really know anything about them. The next day, I asked my high school librarian for her suggestions on a book to read, and she recommended T. H. White's The Once and Future King.

The comparable shot at the conclusion of the Boorman film. It makes sense to begin the game with this shot, since the game takes place after the death of King Arthur.

That book swiftly became my favorite book of all time--it still is--and my librarian's recommendation was a major turning point in my life. It led, directly and indirectly, to numerous life choices, mostly too personal to talk about, but which still have ramifications 25 years later. The most relevant outcome for this blog post is that I studied Arthurian literature throughout college. I read works spanning a thousand-year history, from Nennius to Tennyson. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Mabinogion, Wace, Layamon, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, Thomas Malory, Edmund Spenser--I consumed them all, and plenty more. I read works translated from French, German, Welsh, Italian, Icelandic, even Hebrew, and in a few cases, when no translation was available, I painstakingly read them with a dictionary at my side. To this day, I can remember the text in which Lancelot gets a full story (Chrétien's Le Chevalier de la Charrete, c. 1180s), the first text to mention the Round Table (Wace's Roman de Brut, c. 1155), and the first appearance of the Sword in the Stone (a prose redaction of Robert de Boron's Merlin, c. 1199).

Here are some things you may or may not know about King Arthur:

  • "Arthurian literature" consists of more than a thousand books, chronicles, short stories, ballads, poems, inscriptions, sculptures, and plays written over a period of about 1,200 years. Even in the Middle Ages, Arthur was pan-national, with stories appearing all across Europe and beyond.
  • We're not really sure Arthur was a real person. The first known text to mention him was written more than three hundred years after he lived. The best evidence that we have for his existence is that a bunch of other historical figures were suddenly named "Arthur" in the sixth and seventh centuries, as if they were being named after someone famous.
  • If he did exist, he was probably a British general who fought the Saxons in the late 400s or early 500s. He almost certainly wasn't a king. (Unless you believe in the "Riothamus" connection, which I'll leave you to read on your own.)
  • Everything else we associate with him--the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Lancelot, Guinevere, the love triangle, Avalon--are creations of writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some is grafted from ancient Celtic mythology, some simply invented by French court poets.
  • The Holy Grail exists entirely within Arthurian literature. It first appears in Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval (c. 1180), but it's a dish and has no connection with Jesus Christ or the Last Supper. It doesn't become the "Holy" Grail until Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie of around 1200. It's not mentioned in any non-Arthurian texts until the 20th century. Indiana Jones and his dad were searching for something that 12th-century French poets invented as a plot device for Percival.
  • The earliest other figure tied to Arthur is Mordred. A passage in the Annales Cambriae (c. 970) mentions the cryptic "Battle of Camlann" in 537, "in which Arthur and Medraut fell and there was death in Britain and Ireland." The text mentions no relation between them and does not even say they were on opposing sides.
  • "Excalibur" is mentioned as "Caliburn" in the earliest Arthurian stories and is called "Caledfwlch" in Welsh legend. It probably comes from the Latin chalybs--"steel." Although it is often associated with the Sword in the Stone (an element that appeared in later French versions of the legend), in about half the sources that mention the Sword in the Stone, it is a different weapon. Arthur pulls it from the stone but later discards it when he receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

With my extensive history studying the legends of King Arthur, you'd think I'd naturally be drawn to a game like Spirit of Excalibur, but that isn't necessarily the case. You see, I get very agitated at unnecessary variations on the legend (which is stupid considering how much the legends themselves vary from each other). I watch a film like King Arthur (2004, with Clive Owen), and I sit there shrieking, "Arthur wasn't a Roman officer! The Romans had been gone from Britain for 80 years! And what the @#$* is a 'Woad'?!" I bristle whenever anyone mentions Arthur as the king of "England," which didn't exist as a term until the ninth century.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the creators of Spirit of Excalibur did their homework. The manual comes with a three-page "historical overview" of Arthur's time and his place in history, followed by a seven-page "survey of the myths of Arthur." The scholarship in this section is quite good, although it gets a few facts wrong, particularly its statement that "the first documented record of Arthur comes to use from Geoffrey of Monmouth's [Historia Regum Britanniae]." This isn't quite true. Geoffrey's book dates from the 1130s, but there are earlier references to Arthur in the Historia Brittonum (c. 830) attributed to Nennius and the Annales Cambriae (c. 970). Certain Welsh legends, though based on texts that post-date Geoffrey, probably pre-date him in origin. There are several others. It is correct, though, that Geoffrey's text has the first full account of Arthur's life.

I also have to admire the game for being a bit ballsy on the theme. You'd think in a game called Spirit of Excalibur, they'd bet the bank on Arthur himself and feature him front-and-center. That's not the case. The game takes place amidst the chaos after Arthur's death, and again the back story is notable in the attention that it pays to its various sources, starting with the opening sentences: "It is the year 539 in Arthurian England. Arthur has been killed at the battle of Camlann, and his realm is in ferment." The "England" part aside (and to be fair, Malory has no problem calling Arthur the King of England), the date can only be based on the Annales Cambriae, which places Arthur's death at 537. If the creators had just relied on Malory as the source, his date of death would have been closer to 500 (Malory says that the Grail Quest started in 479).

Looks like the developers went with 14 seats for their version of the Round Table. The number given by various texts ranges from 13 (Didot-Perceval) to 1600 (Layamon). No source that I can find gives exactly 14.

"You are the Crown Regent, Lord Constantine, King Arthur's successor as leader of the Knights of the Round table." Constantine was first given as Arthur's successor in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and he seems to have been based on a real king of Devon and Cornwall. He doesn't appear in many versions of the Arthurian cycle, but he does appear in the big ones (Geoffrey, Wace, Layamon, Malory). He is notably the son of Cador of Cornwall, who was the son of Gorlois of Cornwall, the king that Uther Pendragon cuckolded to father Arthur in the first place. The legends don't really mention how Constantine became Arthur's designated heir, but I like to think Arthur was trying to make up for the circumstances of his birth.

I'm going to be going on like this for a while, so here's another opening screen shot to keep you interested.

"Much of Arthur's power, however, is not yours to command. Sir Lancelot du Lac, Arthur's great companion, incomparable champion . . . has gone into retreat. He has taken the greater part of Arthur's veterans with him." Now we switch to Malory, who wrote his great work in the 1450s and 1460s. Lancelot doesn't appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth or any of the putative "historical" versions of the Arthurian myth. In Geoffrey, the battle between Arthur and Mordred takes place after Arthur returns from a war against Rome. By the time of Malory's text, the Roman War was pushed to the beginning of Arthur's reign, and the final battle takes place when Arthur returns from France from a brief war with Lancelot (although there's a confusing second Roman War in there as well). In Malory, it is true that most of Arthur's best knights have sided with Lancelot, not because they think he's in the right, but because Lancelot has been their captain for decades, and Arthur's reaction to the discovery of the affair (condemn Lancelot, burn Guinevere) seems a bit extreme.

"To make matters worse, the legacy of Arthur's bastard son Mordred has come back to haunt you. Though Arthur slew Mordred in his final battle, his sons Melehan and Morgolon have grown to maturity and are carrying on Mordred's quest to usurp the throne!" Geoffrey gives Mordred as Arthur's nephew, the son of his sister Anna. Mordred doesn't become Arthur's illegitimate, incestuous son until the Vulgate Cycle of the 13th century. Anyway, I'm most impressed by "Melehan." I had to go online to look this up, but I think the only sources in which he appears by this name are the Vulgate Mort Artu and the Post-Vulgate Mort Artu, which would have been somewhat obscure sources at the time this game was made. Oddly, although many sources say Mordred had two sons, only one of them is ever named. I'm pretty sure the creators made up "Morgolon."

In this general theme, the creators are going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who does say that Constantine finished the war against Mordred's sons (who are unnamed). I hope the game doesn't end the way Geoffrey's account does, in which Constantine personally chases Mordred's sons into the church in Winchester and slays them on the altar--a sacrilege that brings down the Wrath of God and leads to Constantine's murder at the hands of his own nephew and heir, Conan. Though I guess it would make a memorable final scene.

From this game's "map" view, you're occasionally notified of individual episodes that take you to the "scene" view.
Spirit of Excalibur was created by Robert Clardy's Synergistic Software, and like just about any game with which Clardy was involved, it resists classification. Like War in Middle Earth (1988), from which its interface evolved, it exists somewhere between an RPG, an adventure game, and a strategy game. The interface is a combination of the campaign level and the local level, and the action chugs along whether you're ready for it or not, switching schizophrenically between episodes and themes. Within the first five or ten minutes, you're navigating the highways of Britain on a map, talking with individual villagers, fighting a one-on-one combat against an evil knight, and fielding an army in defense of a castle--all with very little control over when these interludes begin and end.

The game is an RPG in the sense that each character has defined attributes and personal inventories.
The game takes place in five "episodes." The first, "The Kingmaking," is a sort-of tutorial in which you face some pretty basic decisions. It begins with Constantine in York, having a chat with King Clariance of Northumberland. I don't know what Constantine is doing in York, so far from the action, but perhaps he was visiting a statue of his namesake, Constantine the Great, who became Emperor of Rome while visiting York in 306 (both he and his father, Emperor Constantius I, were in the city when Constantius died). Anyway, Constantine immediately hits the road to head towards Camelot to be crowned king.

Some useless advice from a maiden along the way.

On the way, he meets a variety of citizens--a townsman, a monk, a traveler, a friar, a damsel--and gets various bits of information from each. (Each city, no matter how large, has exactly one NPC, it seems.) Your only role-playing options here are to stop and talk or continue on. If you talk, you don't get any dialogue options. The citizens speak their piece and the game continues.

In Lincoln, I find that an evil knight named Lupinus has challenged the noble Sir Villars to single combat, but Villars has been injured fighting some bandits. (I think both names are inventions of this game.) A monk asks me to serve as Villars's champion. I agree and encounter Lupinus in the village.

Ouch, man. That really stings.

One-on-one combat takes place on a Karateka-like screen where you trade actions--attack, defense, use an item, magic, or let the computer fight for you on "automatic." This first fight wasn't tough; I just hit "attack" repeatedly until Lupinus crumbled. The grateful Villars swore fealty to me and agreed to support my claim.

You know who's good and who's bad by our armor color.

The next major episode took place in Leicester, where Sir Gahalantine was besieged by some "Saxon villains." (Gahalantine is a minor knight mentioned only by Malory. By Malory's account, he ought to be with Lancelot in France right now.) I'm given the option to head to the castle and rout the attackers. This is the game's introduction to battlefield combat. Mostly it fights itself, though you can click on individual units and tell them what to do. The units are really tiny, though, and it's hard to tell who's who.

Anyway, I won the battle with no difficulty, and I also got Sir Gahalantine's support. Thus, I continued on to Camelot. The game follows Malory's example by locating Camelot at present-day Winchester. Other sources place it all over the map. There is some archaeological evidence for an Arthurian-era war leader's headquarters at Cadbury in Somerset, about 100 miles to the west of Winchester.

Sir Bedivere met me when I entered the castle and gave me his support, along with several other former Knights of the Round Table. That means a lot, since Bedivere was one of Arthur's most loyal retainers, attached to the legend all the way back to the Welsh Triads, and in Malory the last person to hold Excalibur before tossing it back to the Lady of the Lake.

The game then shows me a map of the lands that I control:

Anyway, this ended the first episode and began the second, titled "The Return of Lancelot du Lac" (spoilers much?). Almost immediately, I hear word of unrest in Scotland, and I've got to send a party to investigate. I have only seven knights to choose from. The game makes a point that I'm having troubling rallying support without a designated champion.

This is an interesting selection of knights. With the exception of Bedivere, the entire lot of them (in Malory) pledged their support to Lancelot when he rescued Guinevere from the stake and carried her off to France. Ector is Lancelot's half-brother, even. Lancelot made them dukes and whatnots of various French lands, so I don't know what they're all doing here. (Dinas, Bellengerus, and Hebes are also all expatriates from the Tristan legends.)

The manual has a glossary listing some basic strengths and weaknesses of each knight, but you really need to get them into a party before you can see specific values. Some have more speed, some more combat ability, some more "nobility" (I'm not sure what that does). The game is a bit confusing, because although it makes you take an initial selection here, it soon becomes clear that I can send any number of these knights, in any combination, to various parts of the map. I chose Ector as the leader the first time. In the legends, he's a decent knight whose adventures are overshadowed by Lancelot's.

Ector and Lavain get ready to head out.

The game then entered into a scenario in which these two knights could walk together around Camelot, talk to various people, and collect items--I guess in anticipation of their journey. Other NPCs in the castle offer to join the expedition, including a friar and Nineve. Various sources have a tough time reaching consensus whether Nineve (or Nimue, Ninniane, and various other incarnations) is the same person as the Lady of the Lake or someone else, whether she's related to Morgan le Fay, and whether her seduction and imprisonment of Merlin is wicked or kind.

I wasn't sure what the advantages and disadvantages of taking the friar and Nineve were, so I took them. It's in this interface that the game seems most like an adventure game. You can select individual characters and have them pick up items, drop them, use them, search, trade, talk and a handful of other actions.

The adventure-style commands available in the game.

There was one room with a key, which let me unlock a door to the castle treasury, where I found a bunch of gold and what sounds like magic items. I'm not sure if I should be looting the treasury, but I distributed the items among my four "party" members.

After that, it was on the road to Scotland! Except that he game map doesn't go as far north as Scotland, so I just headed north. On the way, I met a traveler who told me that a large force of Saxons was gathering in East Anglia.

When I reached London, I switched to "scene" view and found myself talking with Sir Lionel, another supporter of Lancelot (and his cousin), who's supposed to be dead by now whatever source you're reading. Before I even asked, he told me that he wouldn't be able to help Camelot because of the "grave dangers" he was facing--presumably the Saxons to his northeast.

It's at this point that the game has me largely confused. Am I supposed to stay in London and help Lionel, or continue on to Scotland? Does the game have an answer to every possibility that I might choose? Does every other city have someone like Lionel with a problem to solve? Was there a compelling reason not to bring the entire round table with me on this quest, to decline to take Nineve and the friar, or to avoid picking up every item in Camelot to take with me? Is there a specific way to play out each scenario, or is Britain my playground? The game will let me return to the Round Table room and select new parties. Should I be sending people all over Britain? It's quite confusing.

Perhaps by next time, I'll have it sorted, though I wouldn't mind any general (non-spoiler) advice from anyone who's played the game. In the meantime, if you're interested in exploring more about the Arthurian legends, here are my recommendations:

  • A full-text version (PDF) of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. The "Arthurian" section begins in Book VI, Chapter 5 (Page 94 of the linked text) with a description of Uther Pendragon as a boy. The Merlin story begins on Page 108. Uther begets Arthur starting on Page 141; Arthur first appears on Page 149 and dies on Page 193. Geoffrey's depiction of Constantine lasts but a page after that. It's important to note that despite the title, Geoffrey wasn't really writing a history, and no modern scholar takes it seriously.
  • T. H. White's The Once and Future King. A moving adaptation of the cycle, based almost entirely on Malory. The basis of the animated film The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, though I recommend neither. White does a fun thing and moves Arthur's reign 500 years forward, making Uther Pendragon a Norman conqueror, but it's not key to the story.
  • Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga, starting with The Crystal Cave. She manages to tell a great story while being true (in sometimes very clever ways) to the original sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth.
  • John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), the best Arthurian film. It crams as much as it can into a limited time, but the depictions of the key characters are mostly faithful to the legend's origins, if at times conflating things (e.g., Arthur himself is the Fisher King). Particularly notable are the preservation of Percival as the Grail Hero and the inclusion of Lancelot's "insanity" episode. Only the depiction of Gawain really suffers. The movie claims that it's based entirely on Le Morte d'Arthur, but certain episodes are lifted directly from Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Game 136: Sword of Fargoal (1982)

Sword of Fargoal
United States
Epyx (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Commodore 64 and VIC-20
Date Started: 23 January 2014
Date Ended: 23 January 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 25/134 (19%)
Ranking at Game #456: 137/456 (30%)

Sword of Fargoal is an audio treasure chest in which every effect is a gem. Each clang, crunch, shriek of a sword blade, victory tune, jingle of coins, chugging of a healing potion, explosion, collapsing of a ceiling, and crescendo upon finding an up staircase is perfectly timed and pitched, making it one of the only games of the era that I wouldn't dream of playing with the sound off. But unlike Dungeons of Daggorath, in which the audio was vital to gameplay, Fargoal doesn't absolutely require the use of sound. It just has a lot of fun with it. 
A typical Fargoal level. I've explored most of it. I'm standing near a down staircase and a pile of gold, about to get attacked by a swordsman. Another enemy lies to my east. At the north of the map is a temple. You can see several other staircases, and the little grey squares are either magic items or traps.

Fargoal has been called a roguelike, but I think that gives the game a little too much credit. Although I enjoyed it, it's more of an arcade game than an RPG, and it doesn't have any of Rogue's complexity when it comes to inventory, enemies, and combat. Its only roguelike features are permadeath and a randomly-generated map that slowly fills in as you explore. In difficulty, I found it to be the inverse of Rogue: easy on the way down, almost impossible on the way up.

When I saw the name coming up on my list, it rang a bell, but I didn't think I had ever played it before. But after I fired it up, saw the font, and started hearing the sounds, it triggered a four-hour episode of déjà vu. I'm pretty sure I played it with a friend and we giggled like idiots every time we found a "magic sack." I also broke into a cold sweat when I encountered a "war lord," so this must have been my bête noire at an earlier age.

The framing story tells the tale of the Protectorate Sword, a blade that, when wielded by someone good, could vanquish any evil. It was kept in a temple in the land of Ferrin for good-hearted warriors to pick up in a time of need. One day, a young fighter named Gedwyn was asked to fetch the sword and use it against a dragon terrorizing a forest. With thoughts of glory in his mind, he retrieved the weapon and rode to the forest, only to find it was all a lie. An evil wizard named Umla had tricked him into bringing him the sword so he could throw it deep in a dungeon, where no one could use it to stop his plans of conquest. The player is an unnamed hero who vows to find the blade for Gedwyn.

The sword lies somewhere between Level 15 and Level 20. For all of the levels above, you're fighting monsters, gaining experience, finding magic items and spells, and collecting treasures. Once you have the sword, the game starts a timer of 2000 seconds (about 33 minutes), and you have to exit the dungeon, with the sword, during that time, or you lose.

The game was originally written for the Commodore VIC-20 in 1982, then improved for the Commodore 64 a year later. It's the C64 version that most people remember, and the one I'm playing. This is my first game with a C64 emulator; I'm using VICE, and it's been a breeze--a far more satisfying experience than the nightmare I've had emulating Amiga games.

It's meant to to be played with a joystick and keyboard in combination, but the interesting thing is that the keyboard is mostly optional. The joystick moves you around the dungeon. If you move on top of a monster, you automatically attack. If you move on top of a treasure, you automatically pick it up. The button activates "panic mode," which spends the appropriate spell to get you out of a tough situation. If your hit points fall below 0, you automatically drink a healing potion if you have one. The button also takes you up and down stairs if you're standing on them. Technically, that's all you need. With the keyboard, you can fine-tune your gameplay by casting certain spells when you want to cast them, but you could get by without it if your preference is to play while sitting on the couch with a drool bucket.

There's no character creation; everyone starts with 11 hit points, a battle skill of 9, one healing potion, and one teleport spell. As the game begins, you can only see a few squares around you. As you explore, the automap slowly fills in. Unlike Rogue and most other roguelikes, you can see monsters in any area that you've already explored. Other than monsters, there are several things to watch for as you explore levels:

1. Trap/treasure squares. These squares may have a trap or may have a treasure. You don't find out until you step on it. If it's a trap, and you act quickly by pressing the button, you might be able to avoid its effects if you have the proper spell. For instance, the "teleport" spell will whisk you away from a ceiling trap. The "shield" spell blocks an explosion trap.

This one was a trap.

Treasures include a variety of spells--invisibility, regeneration, teleport, shield, drift, light--magic sacks (allow you to carry more gold), magic maps of other levels, teleportation beacons, enchantments for your weapon, and healing potions. There is otherwise no weapon or armor inventory in the game.

2. Gold. There's nothing to buy in the game, but you can amass gold pieces and turn them in at temples for extra experience points. You can carry 100 gold pieces plus 100 more for every "magic sack" that you have. Excess gold can be buried and retrieved later.

3. Temples. There's one temple per level. Not only does it convert gold to experience, it serves as a permanent "Elbereth" square; no monster will attack while you're standing on one. This makes it an ideal place to regenerate hit points.

I'm standing on a temple. None of those monsters will attack me until I feel like leaving and bringing the fight to them.

Combat is absolutely bereft of tactics but fun nonetheless. You enter combat when you occupy the same square as an enemy. The game immediately goes into Batman mode, annotating rounds of combat with exclamations like "Growl!," "Shriek!," "Thud," "Clink, "Clang," "Shred," and "Ouch!" Each is accompanied by an appropriate sound effect (as well as a little two-note victory tune at the end). You can't see the damage you're doing to your foe during these rounds, but you watch your own hit point total slowly deplete, and there are some wonderfully tense moments as you sit there thinking, "He'll die this round, right? No? Next time?" All the while, your hit points are going from 70 to 55 to 43 to 39 to 21. "Oh, come on!" you cry, your hand over the joystick button, ready to run or teleport away when you cross some threshold.

Part of a combat round.

Your combat skill and hit point totals are determined by your level. The number of experience points required for each level-up doubles every time, so you plateau by dungeon level 10 or so.

Monsters do get more difficult as you head downward, but that isn't the real dynamic of the game. The more important element is the variance between the time given to the player and enemies in each turn--a system I've seen nowhere else. Unlike most games, where you trade turn-for-turn with enemies, in Fargoal, you start at a huge advantage, able to move 10 or 12 times for every one of the monsters' movements. (Monsters' turns are highlighted with a sort-of droning sound, the one sound effect in the game that I didn't like.) You could literally run circles around them. Unless you're unlucky enough to blunder into them in the hallways, you never have to fight a single monster. The ratio gets smaller as you descend the levels, and by the time you're on the level with the Sword of Fargoal, it's close to 1:1.

There are a lot of enemies in this room, but it's an early level, so I can easily keep away from them.

(Elaborating on the above: technically, the game isn't turn-based, and monsters will move if you just stand there. The variance between your time and theirs is not in movements but in time. However, it's more complicated than that, because if you just stand still, your turn ends sooner than if you move constantly during the turn. If you change movement direction during the turn, you'll get fewer moves than if you go a consistent direction. The game thus uses an odd hybrid between turn-based and time-based movement.)

The major combat tactic in the game is to always be sure that you're the one who attacks. If a monster attacks you, it's a fight to the death unless you have a "teleport" spell. But if you attack the enemy, you can flee at any time--and because of the turn variance, you can usually get a few squares away. In tandem, these two elements have a number of implications, such as exploring corridors slowly and trying not to end up right next to a monster when your turn's time runs out.


The fact that you almost always have a movement advantage makes the early game fairly easy (which is nice, since death is permanent). You just have to keep on your toes and flee when your hit points get too low. Health slowly regenerates when you stand around, and if you can find a temple--where monsters won't attack you--you've got it made. Stand on the temple until you get back to your maximum, then go attack whatever monsters you want. If they "clang" and "crunch" you too low, run away and go back to the temple.

I wish I could remember playing this when I was a kid, because I suspect 11-year-old Chet was too impatient to just stand there on a temple, waiting for his hit points to recharge. I'll bet he wandered around at half-health for most of the game. Using an emulator, it's easy to cheat this process by standing on a temple and cranking up the CPU speed, passing in three seconds what might have taken five minutes in normal gameplay. The only way to honestly speed up the regeneration process in-game is the "regeneration" spell.

Most monsters just do melee damage, but a few have special attacks. Mages can utterly wipe away your accumulated magic spells. Thieves and monks can steal your treasure, though it's easy to chase them down and get it back. Assassins are invisible unless they're in the square right next to you; they like to linger by stairs. Demons drain experience levels.

The levels are randomly generated, and they change each time you leave and return, so there's no point taking screen shots for the way back up. Sometimes, the random generation produces odd results, such as half-levels where you can't get from one side to the other. (There are no secret doors.) Although I didn't experience it, I've read that some players get to the Sword of Fargoal level and, after thorough exploration, find that the random designer made it impossible to get through the maze to the sword. They have to go up and come back.

A half-level. There are monsters and treasures out there, but I won't be able to get to them.

In such an environment, the magic map treasure is probably the most valuable item in the game. It immediately reveals an entire level--treasures, monsters, temple, stairs, everything. You can "lose" your memory of the map when you step in a trap. There's nothing more annoying than having a magic map of a level only to lose it the first time you step into a trap/treasure square.

I arrive on a level for which I have a map. The screen slowly boxes in from the outside.

In between levels, you get an update of your character status and inventory; you can't otherwise call these up. After you get the sword, these transition screens also display the remaining time.

The two transition screens between levels. I'm doing all right.
I'm not going to pretend that I won the game without cheating. My goal in these "backtracking" posts is more to fully document the games than to play by my normal rules, and I wasn't eager for dozens of gameplay hours, no matter how much I liked it. I used save states a few times on the way down, and constantly on the way back up.

As I noted, the way down isn't too hard with a little planning and patience. You can avoid most fights, flee from the ones you initiate, and heal up in between them. If you save teleport spells for when you need to escape from the rare fight that the enemy initiates, you're fine.

The level with the titular sword looks different from all the others--a maze rather than a series of rooms. I was lucky enough to have found a map of the level, so it was easy to get to the sword once I arrived. There's no special protection around the sword.

Finding the sword on the maze level.

Once you pick up the sword, however, the game fundamentally changes. From that moment, you have 33 minutes to get back to the surface, so to the best extent possible, you want to go stairway to stairway. No fighting, no gold, no treasures, no temples. The problem is that you have to re-explore all the levels on the way up. Sometimes you get really lucky, like this . . .

. . . and other times, you have to reveal the entire level to find the stairs.

This one would have taken a long time to find if I hadn't cheated.

Making it even worse, any enemy who attacks you (as opposed to you attacking them) steals the sword and immediately disappears. The sword returns to the level on which you found it, and the clock doesn't stop running. Thus, unless this happens only a level or so away from where you found it in the first place, you almost certainly don't have time to go back down, grab it again, and return to the surface. You want to avoid enemies like the plague. This is a time to burn all your accumulated "invisibility" spells.

Magic maps on the way up are a mixed blessing. It's great that you can see the way to the stairway, but the map takes about half a minute to draw, and this time is deducted from your clock.

I cheated horribly during this section by saving a save state at the beginning of each dungeon level, finding the stairs, then re-loading and heading immediately for them. Even doing that, I reached the top with only eight minutes to spare, so I can imagine how tense it must have been on the original system. Legions of players must have found the sword and made their way towards the surface, only to run out of time on the fifth level or have the sword stolen on the third. I shout enough when I fail timed missions in Assassin's Creed; I can't imagine the howling I'd produce after spending four hours on this game only to run out the clock with a couple levels to go.

Making it back to the first-level stairway, with the sword in hand.

It really does take that long. You had to be prepared to invest some serious time in Sword of Fargoal. My winning game took 4.5 hours of gameplay time. It wasn't that long for me, because some of that time was spend standing on temples and letting the CPU run at "warp" speed, but it would have been that long on original equipment. There's no saving it for later, and no bathroom breaks until you find a temple. That must have been brutal.

The "winning" screen.

If you make it, you get a message that says "Your quest is complete!" and then a screen of your overall statistics. If the clock runs out, next time you change levels, you get a message that says "out of time!" but then it takes you to the same statistics screen. Except for that brief flash of "Out of time!" or "Your quest is complete!" you wouldn't really be able to tell if someone won the game or not.

My only proof.

In any event, this is not a game intended to be covered in one sitting, "won," and put away. It's meant to take a lot of tries, perhaps never fully won, with players comparing times and experience levels. Part of me wants to see how many tries it would take to win it honestly, or if it would be possible to win the game without fighting a single combat. I actually tried the latter, but I only made it to Level 5 before I got killed by a ceiling trap.

As I said, although it's fun, innovative, and charming, Sword of Fargoal isn't much of a role-playing game under classic definitions, and it doesn't do terribly well in the GIMLET, earning only a score of 19. Its highest categories are "graphics, sound, and interface" and "gameplay" (both 4s), but it loses out on no NPCs, almost no economy, limited combat tactics, and not much of an inventory. Don't pay attention to the score. Enjoy it on its own terms.

Sword of Fargoal was developed by Jeff McCord and published by Epyx; it is notably one of only three RPGs from Epyx outside the Dunjonquest series. The manual boasts production qualities characteristic of Epyx: strong writing, stylish formatting (most manuals of the era were written on a typewriter), and evocative images.

A couple of manual pages.

Like some of the other developers we've seen recently, McCord was something of a one-hit wonder. Fargoal was his only game. The Wikipedia article on the game has an inadequately-cited account that states he started working on the game in 1979, calling it Gammaquest II (we are left to wonder what it has to do with gamma, or what the first Gammaquest was). When Epyx picked it up for publication, McCord wanted to call it Fargaol ("far jail"), but Epyx insisted on reversing the two vowels. McCord's MobyGames bio says that after Fargoal, he worked on a science fiction game for Electronic Arts but never finished it. He got out of the game business for a while and instead simultaneously ran a graphic design company and a couple of home restoration businesses.

In 2003, Paul Pridham and Elias Pschernig made a PC remake of Fargoal. In a 2011 Macmodo interview, McCord recounts that when they showed it to him, he was impressed but reminded them that it was copyrighted. Rather than ask them to desist, he suggested they start a company and market it. This endeavor became Fargoal, LLC, and they produced versions of the game for iOS in 2009 and for the Mac in 2010. In 2012, they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to create Sword of Fargoal 2. (Incredibly, they did not use the opportunity to set a regular goal and a "far goal." Seriously, guys. That one wrote itself.) I'm not sure what the sequel's current status is.

The iOS version of the game.

So there you have it: a game that fails most RPG criteria, but I liked it anyway, and moreover, I can see why people remember it fondly and want to buy updated versions today. It didn't do everything I want out of an RPG, but amongst the things that it did, it didn't do anything wrong.

Next up: Spirit of Excalibur (1990), followed by Empire II: Interstellar Sharks, now that I have a copy.