Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Addictive Personality Manifests in Many Ways

I'm going to go ahead and say I've "won."

Back to my primary addiction.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Game 143: Expedition Amazon (1983)

The biggest surprise in Expedition Amazon comes on its title screen. The author of the game is listed as Willard Phillips, about whom I can find nothing, but the next two credits are for "illustrations" by Greg Malone and "program support" by David Shapiro. Unless there is more than one developer of each of those names, it appears that "Moebius the Windwalker" and "Dr. Cat" worked on a game together several years before they were both employed at Origin Systems, a fact that I've been able to find nowhere else.

Despite starting with a page-long tract on "What is a Fantasy Role Playing Game?," Expedition Amazon doesn't play much like a traditional RPG. Part of it is the setting, sure--modern South America rather than a high fantasy or sci-fi setting--but most of it has to do with the weird gameplay. The basic mechanic is that you slowly reveal a series of overland and underground maps while good and bad (mostly bad) things happen to your party at random, some of which you can deter with the proper equipment. Its closest analogue in the RPG world is Robert Clardy's Wilderness Adventure and Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure.

The backstory is told with the type of irreverent whimsy that most people enjoy and I hate. The party is a group of researchers from Flint University, outside Austin, Texas, which was founded by a rancher as a tax shelter. The university's Department of Archaeology is run by a part-time professor named Jonathon Arrowhead who, inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, got his degree from a diploma mill in California. Influenced by In Search of Ancient Astronauts and "smoking grass," Arrowhead believes the ancient Incans were taught by aliens. He's bent on the discovery of a lost Incan city called Ka--named because he believes the Inca civilization got its name from being "in Ka." Starting from a basecamp at Iquitos in Peru, multiple parties have been tasked with exploring the Amazon basin and finding the fabled city.

The player begins by choosing a difficulty level on a scale of 1 to 9, then assigning names to four positions: field assistant, medic, radio operator, and guard. You then transition to the city of Iquitos (a real city in Peru) and purchase equipment at the trading post. Each party starts with an amount of money dependent on the difficulty level.

Once outfitted, the party leaves for basecamp and begins exploring the wilds of the Amazon. We've had a discussion about "mowing the lawn" in reference to the exploration mechanism in Crusaders of Khazan, and here we have a nearly identical mechanic, with the player slowly uncovering each square by navigating with the IJKM cluster. The two biggest differences here are that a) the party "forgets" the map if they leave it before the entire thing (or almost the entire thing) has been revealed; and b) the party gets experience points for every new square they explore and every map they fully explore. This is the only CRPG I know that awards experience simply for exploration.

"Mowing" the map in a box-in pattern. The numbers below indicate that it's hour 14 on day 6 and I've mapped 1,610 squares. The numbers between 17 and 16 are the hit point totals for my four party members.

Every five or six steps, there's some kind of encounter, usually with something unfortunate. A rabid bat or "crazed capybaras" attack and give someone rabies. A mosquito cloud appears and gives someone malaria. Fleas bring the plague. Cockroaches infest the food and make the party lose a day's worth of rations. An Amazon throws a spear and damages someone. Natives infiltrate the party and steal some of the equipment. A tick delivers yellow fever. If you're in a boat, you might hit a rock and sink the boat. If you're dumb enough to be swimming without a boat, you might face piranhas, crocodiles, or quicksand. A few of these calamities can be averted with the right equipment (e.g., mosquito netting protects against mosquitoes), but most you just have to suck up.

Some of the encounters are "finds" in which you unearth clay, silver, or gold artifacts to sell back in town (you know, just like real archaeologists). Hopefully, your "finds" outweigh the amount of money you have to spend restocking medical equipment and replacing items stolen by natives.

Some encounters lead to combat, in which you face a large party of either Amazons or Jivaro Indians, countering their spears and blowguns with pistols, automatic rifles, or grenades. I've often lamented that more RPGs aren't set in the modern world, but there is something inescapably uncomfortable about a team of "archaeologists" massacring aboriginal Peruvians with hand grenades. Combat, in any event, is of the most basic sort. Each round, each character has an option to either throw a grenade (which kills up to 10 enemies), shoot up to 6 bullets from a pistol, or fire a 20-bullet clip from an assault rifle. The party is limited in the number of grenades (8) and bullets (180) that it can carry, so after a few combats, it's necessary to return to the city and re-stock. This makes it particularly annoying when natives sneak into your camp and steal all the grenades, which happens frequently.

Combat with some natives. My party has 140 bullets and 0 grenades left. I'm facing 6 enemies. In this round, I have chosen to have Virginia fire her (p)istol for 6 shots, 5 of which hit (and killed) the enemies. Enemies have no hit points; they're just either alive or dead.

Combat very rarely rewards you with some equipment or treasure, but more often the natives carry junk joke items, and there seems to be no limit to the list programmed into the library: a Roto-Rooter gift card, a picture of Fabian, a bust of Beethoven, and so forth. The same silly approach to humor can be found in town, where Pedro, proprietor of the trading post, tells horrible jokes when you enter. Fortunately, you have the option to turn the illustrations off and just get down to business.

This is the most graphically-complex screen in the game, and they used it for this.

Except for a few places in the underground areas, encounters are entirely time-dependent and not space-dependent. No encounter in the outdoor area occurs in a fixed location, so the only purpose of exploring all the squares is for its own sake. You could achieve the same results with combats, treasure, and other encounters by just walking back and forth between two squares.

Each party member starts with 6 hit points, from which they take damage from combat, poison, disease, and so forth. As the party amasses experience from combat, exploration, and treasure, the hit point total increases for everyone, as does overall "skill." The skill increase manifests itself in improved combat rolls (e.g., hitting enemies on all 6 shots instead of just 3) and the ability to occasionally defend against one of the bad encounters (e.g., a character shoots the rabid monkey before it can bite). Medical kits can restore a character's hit points (and remove poison and disease) at any point, but the party can only carry 8 kits at once.

Checking my status back in town. My characters are all Level 11 and have a maximum of 22 hit points.

There are 10 outdoor maps to explore, so most of the initial game dynamic is trying to survive long enough to fully map an area before inevitably having to return to the city to replenish ammo, medkits, and other equipment. Between thefts by natives and other calamities, it's very hard to do better than break even, financially, on each trip, and I haven't come close to being able to afford a LORAN navigation system or an assault rifle.

The game manual suggests that once you map the 10 outdoor areas, it's time to go underground, where "you will find clues to help you complete your quest." There are a bunch of structures on the outdoor maps, but only three (that I've noted) with stairs down. The underground areas have more combats than the outdoor areas, and a smaller variety of encounters, but the encounters are much deadlier. You can stumble on sacrificial altars and volcanic vents which instantly kill characters, and various (unavoidable) triggers might cause the level to fill with water or lava. There are rare "crypts" that you have the option to open; these occasionally reveal treasures but more often just poison or kill you. Monsters can appear randomly and destroy your lamp, and you can only carry three lamps at a time, so you can easily find yourself lost in the dark.

Finding a crypt in the dungeons beneath a ziggurat.

Despite the designated roles (field assistant, medic, radio operator, guard), your characters aren't really unique individuals. They don't have separate inventories, and they all level up together. If one dies, you can't perform any functions of that role until you return to the city and replace him. This would happen so often in the dungeons, even with high-level characters, that I've been reloading when I lose someone. The game does save the party when you exit, so I think it's still within the spirit of the original to do that.

For the most part, I've been trying to keep these "backtracking" posts to a single entry per game, but I'm stuck with Expedition Amazon. I've explored all the places I can find in the underground areas, and I just can't find the path to Ka and the endgame despite the manual's assurances that "hidden clues" would guide me there. Every party of "Crocodile Cult" members that I kill in the dungeons has this scrap of parchment on them:

Don't bother Googling it; I don't think any walkthroughs exist for this game.

I can't make heads or tails of it. It doesn't seem to be any kind of cryptogram, nor a map, nor does any obvious substitution with the Apple II keyboard yield a result. Any ideas?

I'll post again if I can win the game. Until then, my summary is that it's an odd game with some interesting ideas, but it's ultimately too limited in its gameplay options to hold much value today. Interesting revelation about Malone and Shapiro, though. It's nice that 31 years after the fact, I can still get an occasional scoop.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Mowing to Victory

Slowly revealing the "Blackwater Swamp" map.
We might regard games that have main quests as existing along a continuum. At one extreme would be something like Wizardry or Dungeon Master: your objective lies at the bottom of a dungeon, and you proceed in a linear manner to it. Somewhere in the middle would be Baldur's Gate or Oblivion in which the main quest proceeds in a series of fixed steps, and you always know where to go for the next one, but you have a lot of room to maneuver in the meantime.

Might & Magic would be the other extreme of the scale. Yes, there's a vague main quest (reach the "inner sanctum"), but the game starts you with no sense of how to achieve it--or even, really, what "it" is--and leaves you to make your way there through exploration. Technically, to beat Might & Magic, you need nothing more than to hit a handful of squares and find a handful of objects, then proceed to the inner sanctum. The difficulty is in exhaustively exploring each map to make sure that you find all of those encounters and objects, and in games with open exploration, many players adopt what commenter Steve calls the "lawnmower" approach, simply going back and forth along the rows and columns of a map until you've hit every encounter.

A freshly-mowed Might & Magic II automap.

Crusaders of Khazan is definitely on Might & Magic's end of the continuum. It isn't quite as vague about the nature of the main quest: I must encounter and, I suspect, kill both Empress Lerotra'hh and her wizard, Khara Khang. But I still have to hit multiple waypoints to this goal, and those waypoints could be anywhere in the game's 6,144 outdoor squares or who-knows-how-many indoor squares. Hence, I've started at the bottom of the map and I've been slowly mowing my way north, experiencing each encounter as I arrive, annotating a few for later return when I'm stronger.

A couple of posts ago, I talked about how Crusaders of Khazan feels a lot like playing a gamebook--what Tunnels & Trolls calls a "solo adventure"--with a computer interface tacked on. A particular encounter illustrates this dynamic quite well. I'm walking along through a dangerous swamp, using a map provided by an NPC to help keep me on a safe path (though I'll doubtless explore even the "unsafe" squares eventually), when I come to a cave:

Imagine how this encounter would play out in a game like Skyrim. Instead of text describing a scum-covered pond, a group of small caves, and one large cave opening, you'd come across this scene in beautiful graphics, and instead of making a textual choice to "go on" or "investigate the cave," you'd just move your character appropriately. Khazan has therefore made two substitutions: text for graphics, and a textual choice for actual player movement.

Clearly, the first substitution is forgivable. I'm not saying that in 1990, it would have been impossible to graphically depict the swamp, pond, and caves--I think Ultima VI could have done it--but it certainly isn't possible with Khazan's game engine. Some graphical description is necessary to give a sense of flavor. But Khazan's engine does allow the player to willfully move his party on top of town and dungeon entrances, so it's odd to render that choice as a textual one instead of a movement one.

The reason soon becomes clear, though: there is no actual cave map on which to move the characters. The entire cave plays out as a text adventure. It continues:

The game also features an inventory dynamic by which you can light torches, so again we have a text option for something that most games would accomplish through the regular game mechanics.

Now it's getting worse. The text is actually simulating combat with the hydra I've discovered in the cave, rather than using the game's regular combat system. Only after a few pages of this do we enter a proper combat screen to finish the encounter.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, these types of encounters add more content to the game than might have been possible otherwise. After all, it takes time and money--not to mention disk space--to build dungeon maps and to depict events graphically. On the other hand, replacing actual gameplay with large chunks of gamebook text does feel a little lazy. It's not often clear why the developers even chose one path over the other. The encounters on the isle of Thorn, for instance, take place on an entirely superfluous city map and could have been handled with the same menu-based approach.

Either way, I guess it's an original approach. This is probably the largest amount of text we've seen in a CRPG to date, even counting the Gold Box games and all of their journal text. It is a welcome change, at least, to see text on screen instead of having to page through an accompanying book.

When I closed last time, I had been captured by some orcs, was stripped of weapons and armor, and was forced to work in their sulfur mines. After several months of game time in which my party toiled as slaves, a fortuitous cave-in killed most of the guards and afforded me the chance to explore the dungeon freely and escape.

I never found out what the "blue flames" were about. When I walked into them, they didn't take me anywhere.

The map pissed me off. In about 8 squares, I got a message that I was exposed to sulfur gas and lost most of my hit points. If my hit points were already low, my characters died and I had to reload. There was no way to anticipate or avoid these traps, so it was just a bunch of trial and error, like that awful mine level in Wizardry IV.

The map culminated in the chambers of the orc leader, Lord Foo. He was wearing something called an "illstone" around his neck, and he demanded a second one from me that I'd found while exploring the corridors. I refused and braced for a fight, but instead someone named "Jonas Revenant" strode in, alluded to a history with Lord Foo, and engaged him in a magical combat that led to them both vanishing. It was a very weird encounter, perhaps alluding to Tunnels & Trolls lore that I've just never experienced.

No idea what the "mood ring" comment was about.

Anyway, it left me alone to loot Lord Foo's treasure room, where I found a "Death Wand" that I assume will come in handy. I had to fight some parties of guards on the way out, and in the process I freed the rest of the slaves. I was a bit startled that there was no place where I found all the weapons and armor the orcs had stolen from me during my capture. Most other games featuring a "prison episode" have a handy chest or NPC who gives everything back to you. Not this one. I had to return to a town and re-equip. Fortunately, the orcs didn't steal any of my gold. 

After my escape, I continued to methodically work my way north, exploring each map in its entirety. Sometimes, I explore a map by columns, sometimes by rows, sometimes by "boxing in," but ultimately I hit every square. Some of the more interesting encounters along my paths have been:

  • An encounter with a "Navastri Demon" in the middle of a desert. It took me a couple of reloads to defeat him, and even then the best I could do was one party member dead (I resurrected him with a magic gem). When defeated, the demon gave me a poem that seemed to refer to a mountain spire I previously tried to explore but left for later when I couldn't win all the combats.

This one isn't going my way.

  • A duel between a human mage and an orc mage. The only option the game gave me were to help the human mage or leave; it annoyed me a bit that there was no option to help the orc. Anyway, helping the human led to him revealing himself as RADAMANTHIS the Rogue, and he indicated he could reward me if I would pay for his blessing at the Money Gods' temple in Khosht, further up the coast.
  • An elven village that had been destroyed in an orc raid, and all the children kidnapped. I had previously freed them from the sulfur mines, so there wasn't anything else to do but burn the dead.
  • On a mountain peak, the statue of a demon. It had gems for eyes and one of them had been stolen. The demon indicated that a dragon had stolen the gem and bade me retrieve it from the dragon's horde. This went along with a hint I received somewhere that I should "travel beyond the Axridge Mountains" (where the statue was) before seeking the dragon in the part of the map known as the Sump.

I'm not sure that agreeing to help the demon was a great role-playing choice.

  • A group of bandits in the process of stealing some sheep from some ogre farmers. I defeated the bandits. The ogres thanked me for not being racist and taught me two languages: "foulspeak" and "gobble." I haven't talked much about the game's approach to languages because I haven't really experienced it tangibly. There are 19 total languages listed in the game manual, and among my characters I speak 9 of them. I've learned them during a couple of encounters and by paying a teacher in Gull. I know they affect how encounters play out, but so far I haven't had any encounters were I seemed to suffer for not knowing the language. Anyway, the ogres also gave me a "Red Ogre Amulet" that will apparently help me when I have to deal with ogres in the future.
  • Two stone giants messing around by crashing into each other. They attacked as I approached. They turned out to be guarding the entrance to a magic pool which raised some of my attributes.

Unfortunately, I'm experiencing a problem that may have also been caused by my visit to the magic pool: most of my characaters' attributes are well below their maximums. Linn, for instance, only has 15 of her 23 IQ and 14 of her 15 dexterity. Meanwhile, her constitution is always one or two points below the maximum, even after I rest. Usually, resting restores attributes, but it's not working here. The characters also don't seem to be cursed, poisoned, or suffering from any other ill effects. I'm not sure how this happened or what to do to make it go away, but it's affecting both my wizard's and my rogue's abilities to cast spells. I'm hoping the problem resolves the next time I level up.

Every character has at least some stats below maximum. For Gideon, it's dexterity and charisma.

I'm getting the impression that I'm not exactly gripping my readers with my discussions of this game, and frankly I'm feeling a bit lackluster about it myself. Part of me likes the process of methodically exploring and experiencing the game's varied encounters, but the encounters just aren't integrated well into the rest of the gameplay, and many of the outcomes seem arbitrary. I'm going to push to wrap it up this weekend even though I have about half the maps left to explore. If I don't, I'll probably still move on to a different game that generates a little more discussion.

Speaking of discussion, I've temporarily had to disable anonymous postings. For some reason, in the past week I've received dozens of blogspam entries, usually of the variety where there's some generic text and then a link to a suspicious web site. Each one of them generates an e-mail, and I have to then visit the post and verify that the spam filter caught the junk, or delete it if it didn't. These tend to occur in waves, so after a few days I'll lift the restriction and allow anonymous comments again. It's really too bad that there are so many people trying to make a living within the fringes of other people's work rather than doing anything productive themselves. I think I literally respect criminals more than people who earn their money via cybersquatting, site spoofing, re-hosting blog posts on their own ad-filled sites (there are no less than 40 sites that copy my posts word-for-word with no attribution), and trying to generate traffic by spam.

Note: I took a long break after this entry and didn't pick up the game until March 2015. Skip to that entry.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Might & Magic

The enemy has me surrounded. Those poor bastards.

It's funny how role playing games and gasoline stations share a common love for alliterative pairs separated by ampersands. Dungeons & Dragons is the ur example, of course, but in addition, we have Tunnels & Trolls, Might & Magic, Maces & Magic, Castles & Crusades, Mutants & Masterminds, Villains & Vigilantes, and probably a billion others. I wonder how many kids in the 1980s played these games behind the Gas & Go, Fuel & Food, or Pump & Pantry.

(Probably not many. I mean, where would you play an RPG behind a gas station? Next to the dumpster? But it makes for an amusing intro. Just go with it.)

Between Tunnels & Trolls and its more famous predecessor, T&T has arguably the more realistic name. "Dungeon" has always been an odd term to describe a multilevel underground labyrinth; "tunnel" works a little better, as it encompasses structures both natural and man-made. As for the creature side of things, I've fought far more trolls than dragons in the typical RPG. I'm surprised Mazes & Monsters didn't occur to anyone until that awful Tom Hanks film.

Crusaders of Khazan was made by the same company that made Might & Magic, and it was only many hours into the game that I realized how much they share in common. In the last post's comments, Gamma Leak noted the similarity between the Might & Magic maps and the Khazan map. Aside from sharing the same artists, they both consist of a series of map blocks (20 for the first two M&M games; 24 for Khazan) designated by row and column, each consisting of 16 x 16 squares. Fantastic creatures depicted on the map look like just art, but they actually indicate encounters with notable creatures, including the dragon on the island, the banshee on the path to Chasara, and a demon in the desert. One difference is that the Khazan world has edges and doesn't wrap around on itself whereas the M&M maps do.

The similarities go beyond the geography. Playing Khazan feels a lot like playing a top-down version of Might & Magic (world navigation in Khazan even looks like the automap in Might & Magic II). From the opening city, you can go almost anywhere, including places in which your party simply shouldn't yet be. You have a variety of eclectic encounters, some easy, some nearly impossible. Exploring is very much a process of moving around systematically until you hit a wall, annotating that location for later return, and continuing to explore in a different direction.

Checking out the automap to plot my explorations around one of Khazan's map squares.

A few gameplay elements serve to make Khazan a bit more annoying than Might & Magic, though. First, moving around takes a lot longer. Days pass in mere steps, each one requiring the consumption of a unit of food, which you have to constantly run back to town to replenish. The constant loss of hit points from both desert ("too hot!") and swamp ("swamp worms bit you!") squares means you frequently have to rest and heal--and it's harder than you might expect to constantly monitor the constitution of all four characters, meaning inevitably someone occasionally dies, requiring a reload. Where Might & Magic had numerous random encounters on each map, letting you build your party as you explored, Khazan features hardly any random encounters in the outdoor world. I've spent months of game time exploring maps without increasing a single level. Finally, plenty of squares in the game are capable of instantly killing you without warning. On the other hand, Khazan does allow saving anywhere, which reduces a lot of the frustration that Might & Magic delivered.

Three characters die from walking into a square they could not possibly have foreseen.

Having few clues on how to proceed with the main quest, I stopped treating the Khazan map like an Ultima map (where it was unimportant to hit every square) and started treating it more like a Might & Magic map, exploring systematically from the F1 map in the southwest corner, trying my best to explore every square or at least annotate it for a later return. Some things I can report:

  • I realized belatedly that the (M)ove command allows you to specify the nature of your movement, including moving slowly, walking, running, riding horses, and climbing (which is how you explore mountainous areas). I keep trying to remember to keep it set to "horses," which takes less time, when exploring most of the map, but almost every event causes it to automatically reset to "walk."

Setting the nature of movement.

  • The desert near the southern coast held a series of encounters with what looked like a demon (depicted on the map), but which turned out to be mirages. I'm sure there's something to find here, but I got frustrated with all of the damage I was taking in the desert and left it for later.

I can just picture my party going, "Come on! You want some! Right here!" for a while before realizing they're yelling at a rock.

  • Also near the desert coast is a "pinnacle" amidst a mountain range. It promises some reward at the top, but I cannot yet get past a "blood bat" that attacks and kills me during the ascent. Marked for later.
  • In the ocean areas, there are a series of random encounters with castaways, some of whom are legitimate and reward you, some of whom turn into were-sharks and attack. We saw the same dynamic way back in Robert Clardy's Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (1981). This, I suppose, is a good place to grind for treasure.

Rewarded for a successful rescue.

  • On the island of Thorn, where I helped the residents of a city against the demon apes in the last post, you can get unlimited battles against demon apes by simply declining to enter the city every time the game asks. I suppose it would be a good place for grinding.
  • Along the coast were a series of encounters with a confused wizard who needed my help with various tasks, such as chopping down a metal tree (it ruined my axe), bandaging a companion, and doing something with an ice ball that I couldn't do because I didn't have the right spell. Ultimately, he told me that someone named "Slyxtr" is "the mad one" who cannot tell the truth "even when he tells you he is lying" and that I need two of something that have to match.

One of four or five encounters with the crazy wizard.

  • In the middle of the ocean north of Phoron--glad I searched every square--I found a shipwreck that, when I continued diving into it, delivered up some gold, jewelry, and a parchment that taught me the "Waterspout" spell, which shoots columns of water at enemies.
  • Off the coast of the city of Knor there's an encounter with a "Plesiosaur" that absolutely slaughters me. I can't even hit it. Marked for later.
  • A small pyramid on the Knor coast held two elementals, each of which offered me a bit of advice. I'm learning that the game has a kind of "hint bank" from which it draws lines of lore that you get at various locations, including the storyteller in Gull, a fortune teller in Knor, and the gossip you purchase on Peleki's Isle.

"You have no use for that knowledge" refers to the fact that I already know the language he offered to teach.

  • North of Knor, I was attacked in the forest by some "spider cultists." After I defeated them, I found a gathering of them trying to sacrifice a teenaged girl to a spider. When I chose to attack them, I was joined by another band of warriors who were there to rescue the girl. When I defeated the second group, the grateful locals healed me and told me of a dragon named "Nepenthes" who lives in the "heart of the sump," but I should go beyond the Axridge Mountains before I seek him.
  • The city of Knor is much smaller than Gull. It has a couple of shops, a wizard's guild, a rogue's guild, a trainer who raises attributes for a fee--but only once per character--and a fortune-teller whose "fate cards" seem to be more dangerous than helpful.

A bad visit to the fortune-teller.

Let's talk a bit about combat, which takes place on a tactical screen not entirely different from SSI games like Shard of Spring and Pool of Radiance. As in the Gold Box games, you occasionally get some kind of obstacle, like water or furniture, in the middle of the map, but for the most part combat occurs in a blank area. Either party can get the jump on the other and get a free round of attacks.

Surprising the enemy will let me take down a handful of them before the others can react.

The initial combat options are whether to use manual combat, auto combat, or flee. Fleeing doesn't work often enough to rely on it, and it's risky because when it fails, the enemy gets a free round. Auto-combat works tolerably well against low-level opponents, but it suffers from the usual auto-combat problems, such as characters not targeting the most important foes, not concentrating their attacks, and not casting spells. I rarely use it at the outset of combat, but I often switch to it when I just have a few low-level mooks to mop up. You have the option to switch to auto-combat at the beginning of each round, and if you're already in auto-combat, you can switch to manual combat by just hitting the SPACE bar.

Each character's round consists of a movement phase and an action phase. Characters go in order of their speed score, which also determines how far they can move (one space for every 5 full points of speed). Obstacles reduce movement rates, and if you're moving away from an adjacent enemy, you can only move once.

Linn's options this combat round.

Actions consist of attacking, casting a spell, using an item, shooting a missile weapon, pushing an enemy, re-equipping items, and blocking. Of these options, "pushing" is the one most unique to Tunnels & Trolls. It supposedly allows you to shove enemies into "hazard" squares like water or fire (which I've yet to encounter in a combat map). It doesn't seem to work the same way that the manual describes. The manual says you have to be unarmed, but I have the option whether I'm armed or not. The choice also seems to have more effects than the manual suggests; when enemies push me, at least, my characters often fall down and go unconscious for a round. It may be worth exploring more in the future, but I've barely touched it now. 

Somewhere around Level 6, my characters started to get two attacks per round, which greatly increases my combat prowess. The game allows you to move into an adjacent enemy as a shortcut for hitting the "attack" option and then choosing him, but this forces you to expend all your attack turns on that foe, even if he dies in the first attack. When I need to be tactical, I've forced myself to manually select "attack" so that doesn't happen.

Only lately have I begun to experiment more with spells. A first-level wizard spell, "Take That You Fiend!" (basically a magic missile) helped in the early stages, but now my wizard is capable of a physical attack that does more damage. The "Waterspout" spell, which I got when exploring a shipwreck, mysteriously went to my rogue instead of my wizard. It's a great spell, blasting a water spout in three directions and capable of taking out three enemies per round. "Oh Go Away!" (basically "fear") is another low-level spell that has a lot of success against up to three enemies. But spells are expensive and I haven't purchased even a quarter of the catalog available to me.

Jori is about to cast "Waterspout" on enemies in front of her.

I realized only recently that I don't even have a healing spell, usually an RPG staple. There is one, called "Poor Baby," but I don't remember seeing it yet in the stores. Resting and eating after combat regenerate so many hit points on their own that it makes a healing spell a bit superfluous, though I wouldn't mind the ability to heal in the midst of combat.

There are a host of spells that seem to serve no purpose (why would I want to pitch us all into the dark with "Darkest Hour"?), that seem absurdly underpowered compared to a physical attack, or that don't even work with the game's mechanic, such as "Lock Tight," which locks doors. Since enemies only appear in single squares in the navigation map, and since doors never appear on combat maps, I assume that if this spell is ever useful at all, it will be as a puzzle solution. I should also mention that the game allows you the option to increase the strength cost of a spell for a greater effect, but I haven't really explored this yet, either.

When there are too many enemies to fit on the screen, you get a message that more are "waiting." This is one of the more terrain-intensive combat screens I've experienced.

I'm very confused about the approach to spells with rogues. There's a first-level wizard spell called "Teacher" (I don't yet have it) that supposedly allows the wizard to teach the rogue a spell. The manual suggests this is the only way rogues can learn new spells. But both towns I've visited so far have offered "rogue's guilds" where rogues can pay to learn spells, in a manner no different than the wizard's guilds in the same towns.

A quick note on equipment: in my travels so far, I've discovered a number of magic rings, potions, and other magic items that can be equipped, consumed, or used with other items. To find out what they do, I have to go back to Gull and find a roaming wizard and pay him to identify the items. (If I ever get "Omni Eye," I'll be able to do it myself.) For instance, the "Cat Ring" that I found early in the game allows the wielder to leap three squares in combat. Something called a "Heart of Fire" reduces fire damage. A "Funny Once Gem" will resurrect a slain character. "Hellfire Juice" is a poison that can be applied to a weapon to temporarily increase its damage. Some of the items appear to be bugged; for instance, "Hellbore Syrup" is supposed to raise my strength by 10 for 6 hours, then halve it for the next day, but all it does is immediately halve it.

In preparation for combat, Knarr shuffles around his equipment and applies Hellfire Juice to his sword.

Anyway, what I haven't found are any magic weapons or armor. My characters are still equipped with the stuff I bought in the first town. I'm not sure if things like broadswords +1 or plate mail +2 don't exist in this universe or whether they're just very rare.

Finally, the Tunnels & Trolls approach to attributes deserves some comment. Attributes determine whether you can use something in the first place (e.g., a great axe requires 10 dexterity and 20 strength; to cast the "Freeze Please" spell, you must have 14 IQ and 10 dexterity) but strength and constitution also act as pools of spell points and hit points, respectively. For this reason, when leveling up, the player has the option to increase strength and constitution far more than the other attributes, and even has the option to increase them both. While I understand that Ken St. Andre was trying to simplify the Dungeons & Dragons system, I confess I find the whole thing more confusing, particularly since the attributes exist on different scales: 16 might be more speed than anyone ever needs, but a constitution of 30 might be fairly weak mid-game. I rather prefer a distinction between fixed attributes and derived attributes in my games.

Leveling up from 7 to 8. The option to increase both strength and constitution has become a better (or at least equal) deal as the levels get higher.

As I close, I've been exploring some mountains in the southeast and I've been abducted by orcs and forced to work in a sulfur mine. When they captured me, they took most of my weapons and armor, and some of my special items, but CRPG experience makes me think I'll find everything neatly stored in a box somewhere before I leave. When I next write, I'll tell you of my escape.

No one escapes Sulfur Mine.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Tunnels & Trolls: Computer Solo Adventure

The game map. The starting island is in the lower left. I don't think the Dragon Continent looks as much like a dragon after all. More like a bird.

My last posting prompted some fond remembrances and discussions of game books. I had suggested that the nature of Crusaders of Khazan's encounters reminded me of these options, and I drew a parallel between "page-scumming" in game books and "encounter-scumming" in the game: saving one's place and testing all the options before deciding on the preferred ending, versus simply making your choice and seeing where it takes you.

If I'd waited a little longer to write that post, I would have drawn a more direct link between gamebooks and Khazan, because it turns out that the game is based on gamebooks, called "solo adventures" by Tunnels & Trolls' publisher. Fiendishgames mentions a couple of them in this comment: Sewers of Oblivion (covering the Gull sewers) and City of Terrors. I'd be surprised if Arena of Khazan and Sea of Mystery didn't also contribute a lot of material. The problem is that playing the game is starting to feel a lot like a literal gamebook, with copious text in the window and a series of branching encounter choices in just about every visitable location. At times, the other parts of the game seem almost superfluous, as if the creator just typed the gamebooks into the computer and then created a half-assed interface to make it seem like the player was playing a computer RPG.

"But Chet!" I hear you sputtering, "You love copious encounters and choices in your games!" This is true, but I like them when they're role-playing choices, or at least character-based choices in which success is determined by character attributes rather than hitting upon the "right" option. Too many of the choices in Khazan--not all, but too many--feel more like standard CYOA book choices, where the plot unfolds in ways that you couldn't have possibly foreseen from the nature of the choices.

Note that the game has me choose whether to hike or more in a particular direction rather than letting me actually walk across a map. Just one of many ways in which it feels like a gamebook that happens to have a CRPG-like interface.
But the larger problem is that there simply isn't a good balance between text and actual gameplay. Envision a typical RPG dungeon. At one end of a hallway, you have a chat with an NPC. Then you walk ten steps down an empty corridor and fight a combat with a party of orcs. The challenge for a game is to make those 10 steps feel necessary, or at least not useless, even though they're empty. It could be done by using the space to build up a sense of suspense about the impending encounter, perhaps with some atmospheric messages every couple of steps. Maybe there's a chance of a random encounter along the way. Perhaps the navigation itself is a puzzle, and the encounter at the "end" of the corridor is actually behind a secret door that the player wouldn't know is there until he maps the rest of the level. A modern game might feature interesting graphics and sound to enhance all of these possibilities. Whatever the case, you don't want the player to reach the next encounter feeling like the game simply wasted his time in the meantime.

Khazan often makes me feel that the 20 steps I walk between the gates of a city and its docks or a shop are its way of simulating the gamebook choice of "if you want to go to the docks, turn to page 91; if you want to go to the shop, turn to page 54." I've felt this way in only a few other games. The overland map in Champions of Krynn comes to mind. It was just wasted space, and the game would have been better off offering a menu of travel options, like Curse of the Azure Bonds did. A lot of other games have featured so many interminable dungeon levels, with no interesting geography, that I'd rather they'd just lined up their combats and let me chug through them in a row. But for the most part, games manage to do a good job--a surprisingly good job--of giving the sense that the space they occupy, and the physical process of moving through it, is somehow necessary, or even fun.
Khazan's problem is that the amount of text and the sheer number of options in the fixed encounters just contrasts too sharply with the paucity of graphics in the space in between. It's a little like reading a physical gamebook but forcing yourself to do a lap around the block every time you make a choice (which, come to think of it, would be a pretty good exercise plan). Still, almost all computer RPGs are, in effect, computer "solo adventures," so much of what makes Crusaders of Khazan notable, and a little unsatisfying, in this regard is somewhat ineffable.

The bloom has come off the rose for a few other reasons, including some undocumented menu choices (I missed out on a lot of items in shops because I didn't realize that F9 and F10, of all things, scrolled through the selections) and weird gameplay elements that I'm not sure if they're bugs or what. Shops randomly stop selling food (often when I most need it), for instance. Resting abruptly stopped healing wounds on my dwarf (I don't think he was afflicted by any other conditions) and I had to reload a much earlier save. A lot of combats plunge me into darkness even when they're initiated in lit places. Occasionally, one of my characters will get no experience from combat for no reason that I can see. The continent, which I had assumed was open and fully explorable, has a bunch of features that artificially restrict movement, such as the characters taking damage for every step they take when walking in what looks like desert terrain, sea currents that prevent landing in all but a a few areas, and in the entire northern half of the map, a banshee who attacks every time you stray off a narrow path.

Most of my playing since last post has been on a series of islands. I first bought a ship from the docks in Gull, then headed out into the sea.

Can I rename it?

I made due east for the mainland, expecting that I'd explore from the south to the north, as I'd been warned by everyone that the northern areas of the continent (above a cliff wall known as the "Great Escarpment") are dominated by monsters. However, the moment I landed, I got a message that it was "too hot!" and started taking damage. I'm not sure what this is about, but I later discovered that it happens every time you walk on an open area of the continent, although you can periodically rest (even in the "too hot!" zone) to recover hit points.

Am I wandering across the sand with no shoes or something?

With that plan temporarily shot, I decided to visit the nearby islands before hitting the continent. The first was a small one called Thorn, just north of Phoron. There was a small town called Anthelios in its one explorable square, and I entered.

As I wandered the hallways, I found myself attacked repeatedly by demon apes. At last, I came across some villagers (there were some encounter options where I had the choice to attack them) who explained that the townsfolk were followers of a sea goddess named Goloe, but she had cursed them for impiety and sin and was sending the demon apes to attack them every month. They asked if I would kill the 30 demon apes currently wandering the city, which would put them in good shape for at least the rest of the month.

I agreed, of course. The demon apes weren't terribly hard, as long as I kept Linn the Wizard away from their clutches, although there weren't 30 of them in the city. I had to keep leaving the city and re-entering, allowing the random encounters to reset, before I could meet the quota. When I did, I got a message that the townsfolk came out of their homes and resumed their business, though I got no more options for helping them in the long term, nor any reward. Meanwhile, I seemed to have made an enemy of the goddess:

Much later in my sea explorations, I came across a "castaway" in a raft. I ignored a crewmember's advice to keep away from the "sea witch," went out to help her, and discovered that she was none other than Goloe herself. She deemed me "worthy of crusading for the great wizard" and blessed me with sea water. Some time after that, I thought of going back to Anthelios to see if the encounter had made any difference, and it had. When I approached the altar, instead of getting a rebuke for helping the villagers, I was allowed to plead their cause. Goloe agreed that she'd punished them enough and called off the demon apes. She also gave me some gold and a bit of verse that I can't quite interpret yet:

When second greatest you do face [the empress's wizard, Khara Khang?]
Khazan's binder in a silver place [probably refers to some artifact I've yet to find]
Teach a rogue to teach a rogue [okay...]
Answer then in ogres' brogue! [a reference to the language system, I guess]
The spender's name in words so bright [clueless from here out]
Clever thief is demon wight
To vanquish wizard this complete
Else second's master must defeat

On another island, inhabited by Amazons, the queen wanted me to retrieve a stolen ring from a dragon on the isle of Khazad. I accepted the quest, but when I got to the island, I found that the dragon was too powerful to defeat in combat for my low-level party. Instead, I had a series of encounter options where I ran into a cave and met a hermit named Briah who had been trapped there for years. He came up with a plan by which I distracted the dragon while Briah opened a secret "trap door" on the beach.

As with the rat battle in the sewers beneath Gull, I had to choose the same options over and over again, suspecting that I was just wasting time, before the encounter finally paid off, with all of us escaping into some secret tunnels beneath the island. The tunnels led under the ocean to another island, called Res (heck of a feat of engineering, that), where I constructed a new ship from some pods--after first fighting a battle against pod people/zombies that escaped from the pods.

When I returned to the queen of the Amazons, she gave me detailed instructions for finding Goloe's temple on an island in the "dragon's maw" ("currents" keep me from reaching it otherwise). I had to land in a particular place on the coast and walk a certain number of steps in various directions before boarding a ferry to the island. Again, what I took to be desert kept damaging me, and if I strayed from the path, I got attacked by a banshee.

Goloe's temple was full of combats with water creatures like merfolk, sharks, and kelpies. Some of them were nearly impossible, causing me to reload multiple times. I ultimately didn't find anything useful here. There was a lagoon in which I could swim and dive to some underwater caverns, but even when I took pains to fully explore them despite taking "choking" damage every move, I didn't find anything to continue the story. I made a note to return later.

Fighting a bunch of "nix waterhorses" in the temple.

Continuing my exploration of the islands, I found:

  • Peleki's island, occupied by a guy named Peleki and his large family. He offered both food and gossip for a price, and in the latter category told me a number of things, including that Empress Lerotra'hh's favorite story is "The Arrogant Knight," that I can only approach "the unicorn guardian" if I'm not wielding any weapons, and that "the best gem to bear a soul is a diamond of golden hue." I dutifully wrote everything down but left before I spent all of my money.

One of Peleki's bits of gossip. I'm sure its meaning will become clear later.

  • An island composed entirely of bones of the dead, with living skeletons controlled by a skeletal hand bearing a black ring. I had numerous options to flee, but I kept investigating and found myself in a very long battle with "living skeletons"--very long because neither of us seemed to be capable of hitting the other. It was very weird. My attacks only connected with them about 1 in 30 times, and they never hit me at all. I eventually had to set the combat to "auto" and go run some errands while the battle finished up. When it was over--my party still unscathed--I had various options to take the ring or flee. Everything but fleeing resulted in the death of at least one of my characters. Maybe I'll return when I have more constitution.

Part of my endless battle with skeletons.

  • The island of Garr, which had a store in the middle of nowhere.
As I sailed, the game occasionally gave me messages from my "captain" and noted the presence of crewmembers on my ship. I have no idea where they came from. Did they come with the ship when I bought it? If so, what did they do when I wrecked it on the dragon's island?
As I close, I've finished what I can do on the islands, and I've pulled in to the city of Knorr on the coast of the continent. Maybe here I'll get more of a trail on the main quest. I've barely explored the spell system at all, so I really need to purchase some magic for my wizard and rogue and start testing it out. More on that, and combat and equipment, next time.