Friday, December 25, 2015

The Standing Stones: Taking a Shortcut

An "oasis" on Level 5 provides a much-needed break from dungeon-crawling.
Although they had limited content, there were a couple of things that the PLATO games did fairly well. The first was to instill a palpable fear as you explored the corridors. Because death is permanent (and there aren't many tricks to avoid it, as in say NetHack), you feel a constant anxiety as you more farther from the entrance. The second was to encourage the player towards effective resource management. If you start exploring with 30 hit points and 8 spells, you'd better think about turning around once you get to 15 hit points and 4 spells, perhaps even sooner. When you're low on both and desperately trying to reach the exit, the question of whether to fight an enemy with only a 75% chance of victory or blast him with a spell for a 100% chance--but then leaving you with one less spell for the next enemy--becomes agonizing. Ditto the question of whether to spend a spell slot taking a shortcut to the exit or risk taking a longer walk and saving the slot for a combat spell.

In transitioning to the microcomputer, Wizardry managed to preserve these considerations--the tactics associated with carefully managing spell slots was perhaps my favorite part of the game--and so does The Standing Stones. The authors of both games valued permadeath enough to keep it even though it wasn't technically necessary. Although this was surmountable with disk copying in the 1980s, the process took enough time and effort that death still had significant consequences.

As you move downward in The Standing Stones, enemies can blind, paralyze, stone, and rob you.
Today, of course, emulators with save states can cheat permadeath, but even liberal use of save states doesn't eliminate the resource management challenge. You can put yourself in a "walking dead" situation in which you simply can't make it back to the surface no matter what you do because your hit points and spell points are too low. Even though I've been hitting ALT-S in the C64 emulator frequently, there have still been a few nail-biting moments. (If I'd used multiple save states, I could have eliminated even this difficulty, of course, but I've only been using "quick save.") 

I talked last time about the rapid pace of leveling. My character had leveled up around 35 times before I finally felt safe leaving Level 1 and exploring downward. This took only an hour or so after my last post. The experience requirements between levels aren't very high in the first place, and it turns out that treasure chests hold tens of thousands of gold pieces--generally more than you'd get in 20 or 25 combats. I was up above Level 80 before I felt comfortable heading below Level 5.

(The game doesn't actually keep track of levels, but since you get 1 extra hit point per level, your max hit point total is analogous to levels in other games.)

Even if I'd been playing The Standing Stones when it was new, I'm pretty sure I would have found a way to cheat its permadeath. There are too many unfair ways to die. Creatures can stone you, and there aren't enough tactics to successfully avoid this all the time. (Among other things, even the weakest creatures have a chance of simply "laughing at" even the strongest spells.) Chests can explode and kill you even if you have dozens of hit points. Your own spells backfire randomly and kill you. Things don't go this wrong often, but in a 15-level dungeon, the odds are against you in the long run.

Exploration is a little more painful in The Standing Stones than the typical gridded game. There are coordinates, but they're only revealed through lucky use of a "Divine Guidance" spell. "Divine Guidance" randomly returns one of five things: your current location, the number of temporary treasures left on the level, the number of permanent treasures left on the level, the coordinates of a treasure, or nothing at all ("the deities remain silent"). You might have to cast it several times before you get the piece of information you seek. Yes, you can save-state and just reload after casting it if you want to be completely lame.

"Divine Guidance" gives me the location of a chest.
The "Jump Level" spell is key to getting around the game quickly, but it consumes 2 mage slots and 1 cleric slot, so you can't use it exclusively. It also has a chance of taking you in the wrong direction, and it doesn't give you any warning when this happens, so you have to couple it with some lucky castings of "Divine Guidance" to ensure you're on the right track. It also deposits you at a random location every time you jump a level, so you have to spend some time orienting yourself on your maps. All told, you might as well just walk.

"Passwall" and "Teleport" help with navigating on a single level, and a useful spell called "Etherealness" assists if you just want to get from one place to another without any combats (but it's also expensive). The Standing Stones is the only game I know where a single spell can consume both mage and cleric spell points at the same time; the most costly spell, "Bless," consumes 2 of each. I generally save as many cleric slots as possible for "Heal."

Exploration is necessary for both random and fixed treasures. It took a lot of testing and some help from Andrew Schultz (see below) before I realized what was happening. Some levels have "permanent treasures," like armor and swords of different augmentations. Their placement is randomly generated when you start a new game, but they remain in their positions until you find them. Other treasures--chests, potions, scrolls, and books that raise or lower attributes--are temporary. When you start the game, it seeds each level with a certain number of them, and once you find all of them on a single level, the game randomly rolls new coordinates and seeds the level with new locations.

This suit of magic armor is one of the fixed treasures.
It's an interesting approach, but it renders exploration somewhat meaningless. I rather like it when interesting arrangements of squares suggest places that will naturally have a key encounter. For instance, if you have a level in which a series of concentric hallways funnel you to a single square in the middle, you can be sure something important is in that square. Wizardry and Might and Magic both do this well. Where everything is randomly placed like in The Standing Stones, the design of the levels is just decoration; you're not likely to find anything important even in squares that call attention to themselves.

That isn't to say that the 16 x 16 levels don't occasionally host some interesting geography. The first four (links to Andrew Schultz's maps) feel pretty random, but the fifth has walls that spell out PEE AJ or something. Level 6 is dominated by 4 x 4 rooms surrounded by corridors and a confusing pattern of one-way walls at each key intersection. (As with Shadowkeep, one-way doors and walls are the game's primary navigation trick.) Level 12 makes the shape of some kind of alien or robot, and Level 15--which I haven't reached--promises to be a navigational nightmare of single-square rooms with one-way exits.

Levels 5 and 10 of the dungeon have randomly-placed "oases" where you can gamble money, pay for healing, and pay to un-curse magic items. The value of the oases is questionable since they don't do the two things you'd really want them to do: level you up and restore magic points. You still have to return all the way to the surface for those--a process that becomes all the more tedious (and dangerous) the further downward you go.

The "roachrace," a gambling game that had previously appeared in the PLATO Oubliette.
I had hoped to wrap up the game in only two postings, but it takes a good 10-15 minutes per level to make the trek downward and back up again. Now that I'm exploring Levels 7-8, a round-trip journey can take a couple of hours. Even though I talked last time about how much I like mapping, I got sick of it with The Standing Stones. There just aren't enough tactics, strategies, and encounters to sustain a 15-level game, no matter how much I enjoy the danger and tension. So I decided to consult a walkthrough for the second half of the game and blog about that experience. Although I've occasionally referenced walkthroughs for individual puzzles, I haven't used one to guide me through a major portion of the game.

Fortunately, Andrew Schultz has us covered. If you've never encountered him before, Schultz is the king of RPG walkthroughs. His GameFAQs profile shows that he's contributed 1,129 files, including 350 complete guides. Name a popular RPG of the 1980s or early 1990s--Akalabeth, Demon's Winter, Dragon Wars, Might and Magic I and II, Moebius, Questron, The Bard's Tale--and chances are it has an exhaustively-documented Schultz walkthrough, complete with maps. I mostly cared about the maps for this one. I figured that if I didn't have to make maps, I could just consult "Divine Guidance" to find the locations of treasures and use the maps to get me there. The process is working, but with all the random combats and the frequent need to return to the surface, it's still taking a long time.

Schultz's maps don't have coordinates, so I've been bringing them into Excel, aligning with a grid, and using the "set transparent color" option to see the gridlines beneath the map. I use highlighting to indicate the squares I've already explored.
Having used Schultz's maps for Levels 5-8, I have to say I find the process a bit unsatisfying. It's definitely faster than doing it myself, and right now speed is more important to me than satisfaction. But when I start using a walkthrough, I start questioning why I'm playing the game at all. I mean, why not just hex-edit the Grail into my possession while I'm at it?

If you have a favorite film or piece of music, you probably have a favorite scene or passage. I'll bet you've noticed that if you pop in the CD or DVD and skip right to your favorite part, it doesn't have the same impact as when you come to it naturally. The recitative may be boring, but you need it to appreciate the arias. So it is with games. I maintain that if you just buzz through the boring or difficult parts, you blunt the impact of the highlights. My only excuses for doing it now are 1) my blog has been languishing all fall and really needs to get some momentum; and 2) I don't really expect this particular game to have a lot of highlights.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The ghost of Lancelot, very helpful on the first couple of levels, disappears the moment you hit Level 4.
  • In addition to glass panes, the game's bestiary includes china plates, cereal bowls, klingoffs, Mrs. Bills, and village idiots. It rather reminds me of 1990's Dragon Sword, where the gallery of monsters was so big that they just started making things up at random.
  • Even fixed stairways can sometimes "lead off into space" and deposit you in an unfamiliar location.
  • Chests occasionally blind you when you try to open them, a state instantly curable with the "Light" spell, which you would expect would do the opposite.

I'll wrap up The Standing Stones in one more posting and then try harder to make some progress on Disciples of Steel, but wow is the latter game hard on the new player. I've had some correspondence with Standing Stones author Peter Schmuckal that I'll cover in the final posting.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 12 


  1. I don't mind if you use some hints (or maps) you found on internet as long as you don't use cheats to win the game. If you feel it takes longer than you would like to invest to this game, dont feel guilty to use this help. I believe you are experienced enough to bring us a precise review eventhough you are not playing 100 % fair. I love your work. Merry Xmas.

  2. Happy Christmas and New Year! And I agree with the poster above -- go ahead and use maps and hints when you're playing insufferable games like this one. You still get the experience playing it (new monsters, puzzles, etc.) but don't have to spend hours doing the drudge work. Considering the number of games you want to get through, there's no point wasting days or weeks on boring, repetitive ones (I think we get the idea on Standing Stones).

    For me, I love reading what you have to say about the history and playability of a game, so using hints/maps is no issue -- full on cheating like hex editing is different since you're skipping chunks of the game itself, though definitely use them for unbeatable/truly awful games if you want to get to the end.

    Anyway, love your writing style and blog! Take care!

  3. A comment for Andrew Schultz, or any other GameFAQs contributors who may be reading this...

    GameFAQs now allows its contributors (FAQ writers, etc.) to add a PayPal donation button to all of their FAQs and contributions. The process takes 30 seconds (assuming one already has a PayPal account), and an unobtrusive donation button appears over each of one's contributions on the site.

    The FAQs and files remain free for the public to browse; there are no paywalls or anything like that. GameFAQs does not take one penny of any donations given to contributors.

    I know all this from personal experience, since I'm a small-time contributor to GameFAQs. I just thought the guy who contributed 350 complete FAQs and more might want to try it out. :)

    1. That would apply for this blog too.
      I've been reading it for years and would not mind to thank it with some Christmas PayPal tip (or patron)
      May Chet would bring us a CRPG addict book one day :)


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