Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gateway to the Savage Frontier: Things Get Real

The largest combat in the game so far.
After a lackluster start, Gateway to the Savage Frontier became a massive treasure hunt for four magic statues that I would have to take to the ancient city of Ascore and somehow use to stop the invasion of the Zhentil forces. In the years since the fall of Ascore, the statues had been scattered across the Savage Frontier. As we closed the last posting, I had found the first one, in the Host Tower of the Arcane in Luskan.

Since then, I've collected all the others. In fact, I've won, but I'm going to split the postings, partly for the sake of length, and partly because I want to give the final combat a few more tries before I write it up the way I "won" it.
Another one down.
The game has provided a reasonably good Gold Box experience. I've been grousing about Gateway a bit, but it's important to keep in mind that it's only inferior compared to its predecessors. Without their legacy, it's quite good. It has an actual plot, for one thing, maps that are chock-full of encounters, and a tactical combat system that remains excellent nearly three decades later. I didn't have any problem convincing myself to fire up the emulator, nor to keep playing when I could have stopped a lot sooner and milked it for three or four entries. Moreover, it finally started to get challenging in this session, with several large, difficult combats and (it turns out) several ways to approach them.

As I closed last time, I had found some intelligence that the next statuette might be on the Kraken Cult-controlled Purple Rocks, another island somewhere west of the mainland. I was heading back to Tuern to try to find passage, but I needn't have bothered. A Kraken showed up to destroy my ship on the way back, and I found myself shipwrecked on--you guessed it--the Purple Rocks.
This screenshot made me want to play Pirates! again.
Purple Rocks was a half-map that had only a few encounters, including a boat over to the Kraken Cult fortress across the strait. In one house, a "town leader" told me that the Krakens had enslaved the town.
There were a couple of battles with Kraken guards allied with margoyles and otyughs. This would be a good time to point out that Gateway seems to fall in love with certain monster types and does its best to ensure that you encounter hordes of them for two or three maps in a row, then never again. Towards the beginning of the game, it was owlbears, soon to give way to margoyles. Otyughs and scrags were prominent in this section. Later, it was griffons and hellhounds. I got rather sick of all of them.
Why humans are fighting alongside otyughs is never quite explained.
Anyway, the battles gave me two pieces of paper with nonsense letters on them, and I don't mind telling you that I was stumped by the puzzle. I assumed they were cryptograms at first, but playing with that yielded no results, so I just put them away for later. As usually happens in the Gold Box games, the clues didn't really matter and I just made it through the ensuing map through brute force. Much later, I consulted a walkthrough, and it turns out I was supposed to lace the messages together, alternately taking one letter from each, and then reversing the order of the words. It would have given me some intelligence about how I could have intercepted the statue on the next island without exploring the whole thing.

Before I left Purple Rocks, I fought a battle with some pirates guarding a lighthouse. Afterwards, Broadside made a point that if the bad guys were guarding a lighthouse, maybe we should put out the light. This is one of many places where the game puts words in the mouths of your characters. I don't really like that, but as Quirkz pointed out in the comments to my last posting, it's rare that games even acknowledge your character names, let alone give them dialogue. He saw these quotes as a forerunner to the NPC "banter" that you get in the Infinity Engine games. Seen that way, it's not so bad.
Cool off, Jaree-ra.
A ferry took us over to the other island, which was also a half-map. Decoding the above message would have led me to a particular door, where I could have intercepted a small number of Kraken guards carrying the statue to a ship. (And dousing the light apparently gave me a little extra time to get there.) Instead, I almost immediately bumbled into a room where some guards set off an alarm. This apparently caused the Krakens to retreat and hole up in the southwest corner of their fortress. This was all invisible to me at the time--when I encountered the forces in the southwest room, I just assumed that's where they were all along.
They weren't very hard--just a group of fighters and otyughs, arranged at the outset in a way that made them vulnerable to "Fireball." If you're going to give players clues to how they can make the mission easy, then doing it without the clues ought to at least be hard.
The only thing hard about this battle was not accidentally catching my own characters in the "Fireball" blast radius. Man, I miss the "center" command.
After the battle, I got the second stone, and the warrior Jagaerda bid me farewell. She had been pretty useless in the first place, with her AI leading her to run around ineffectually in the rear of the party. I should have given her a bow.
Without much trouble, a boat took us back to Neverwinter, where I had to figure out the next place to go. I decided to head to Secomber, where the mage Amanitas had indicated he'd be. Before I did, however, I returned to Silverymoon, keen to spend some of my accumulated riches on those Gauntlets of Dexterity.

The austerity with which I'd begun the game had by now devolved into the usual Gold Box insanity. My characters were leaving coins on the ground after most battles because they couldn't carry any more, and by the time I got back to Silverymoon, I had more than 100 gems and around 75 pieces of jewelry, each of which might be appraised for thousands of gold pieces. I was not only able to buy the Gauntlets of Dexterity, I was able to buy a pair for each character, including my NPC fighter. (The Gauntlets raise your dexterity by 1.) Even after sinking much of the rest into Potions of Invisibility, Potions of Speed, Potions of Extra Healing, and +1 arrows, I still had plenty left.
In contrast to the plenty I was suddenly experiencing economically, none of my characters had increased a level in about 5 maps and wouldn't for about 3 more. The game is maddeningly uneven in this area. My two clerics and mage had already maxed their levels at the end of the last post. My fighter/thief, paladin, and ranger had a couple more levels before hitting their max--but they would only level up 1 more time during the second two-thirds of the game.

On to Secomber! The city was at the south of the game map, in contrast to Silverymoon at the north, so I made my way there by cutting straight through the heart. This took me through a large forested area labeled on my map as the "High Forest," and it's here that the Savage Frontier best earned its name. I had multiple encounters with ettins, hill giants, and giant snakes--the sort of beasts that you'd expect to live in a place called the "Savage Frontier."
I thought the graphics for the ettins were pretty good.
And the area had lots of uses for "Snake Charm!"
Secomber was  a pathetic map, just one-quarter the size of a normal game map. It had an inn, an armorer, a boat rental place (signs warned of danger on the roads), and a fixed combat with some gnolls. The only purpose to the city seemed to be to visit Amanitas in his house.
Erek doesn't seem to realize that, owing to my having done the maps out-of-order, I've never met him.
In a babbling, absent-minded way, Amanitas suggested I go to the city of Llorkh next. It lay east of Secomber. To get there, I would have to pass through the city of Loudwater. I looked up Amanitas on the Forgotten Realms wiki later, and it turns out he has a bunch of lore attached to him from one D&D module--1987's "The Shattered Statue"--and two D&D sourcebooks: The Savage Empire (1988) and Lords of Darkness (1989).

Loudwater was a standard 16 x 16 map with a bunch of services. The city is divided in half by a river, and you have to cross a bridge to get from the west to the east. It was on this bridge that the Zhent general Vaalgamon set up the army of fighters and manticores that introduced this posting. The manticores are capable of multiple ranged attacks per round, and the fighters are no pushovers. I was unprepared for the battle the first time and they slaughtered me.
Things go poorly.
But I was exhilarated because Gateway hadn't provided any seriously challenging combats so far. In the entire game, I don't think there was a single battle that I had to buff for. I reloaded and got it together with "Prayer," "Bless," "Enlarge," and "Mirror Image," then re-engaged. I won the second time, but mostly because my mage managed to get a "Fireball" off early in the round, followed by a blast of the Wand of Ice Storm from my thief. This killed the manticores before they could fire their quills or whatever. I took care of the fighters slowly with multiple castings of "Hold Person" from my two clerics.
One thing about the Gold Box games that never gets old.
I was amused later to discover that you're not really "supposed" to fight this huge battle. Instead, you're supposed to cross the river via a back way (through an inn), and pick off the various enemies in smaller encounters on side-streets and back alleys, then fight a much-reduced force on the bridge. Oh, well. I liked the big combat, and I got all the side encounters anyway.

At the end of the combat, a fighter named Rishpal approached my party and said he was disgusted with the way Lord Vaalgamon fled the field and let his minions take all the damage. He offered to join my party to get revenge. For once in my life, I declined to acquiesce to such an obvious trap and told him to get lost. Apparently, if I'd taken him, it would have later turned out that he was a spy.
I left Loudwater and headed over to Llorkh. Not three steps into the city, I fell into a trap and found myself in an arena. Guards roughed us up and took the two statues. General Vaalgamon appeared and said he'd spare our lives if we could survive the arena combats.
How about I decide for myself what's "too many to resist"?
What followed were three combats, with no rest in between, against ogres, hellhounds, and griffons. It wasn't quite as exciting as the triple no-rest combats with the kobolds in Pool of Radiance, but it was still pretty good. I really started to warm up to the game's increased challenge at this point. It wasn't too challenging, I hasten to add, since I won the combats without having to re-load. But two of my characters were knocked unconscious, so that's something.
After the combats, we were tossed into a cell, which we escaped in due order. We went around freeing the other imprisoned arena combatants, including a half-orc named Muthtur who joined the party.
When Vaalgamon left, he apparently didn't take the two statues with him, because I found them--along with a third--after a tough combat with another bunch of fighters and griffons. The game had decided that griffons were its thing by this point, and I don't think there was a map in the rest of the game that didn't have them.
The rest of Llorkh wasn't that interesting. There were scattered combats with Zhent fighters, griffons, and whatnot. There was some backstory about the city having been stolen from the dwarves by Zhent forces, but it never went anywhere. (Although there were some acknowledgements that I had a dwarf in my party, which was nice.) The map was really only notable for an encounter with a medusa. It was prefaced in the usual way, with my party finding "statues" of warriors and townsfolk.
Any experienced adventurer knows what this means.
I should mention that just about every city has featured a little "variety shop" selling flasks of holy water, flaming oil, and mirrors. You'd think I would have bothered to outfit my party with mirrors for just an inevitability--medusas are, after all, listed among the creatures in the bestiary--but I hadn't. So in the ensuing battle, I ended up reloading about 4 times before I finally got the jump on her and defeated her before she could turn a character to stone. 
The encounter availed me hardly anything. A lot of fixed combats in this game offer no particular treasure or loot after them, or even significant experience.

This medusa battle was far from the only one in the game. There were at least four more, and I think three of them had two medusas in each combat. Did I ever bother to get a set of mirrors? Of course not. After every medusa battle, I said to myself, "Well, surely THAT one was the last medusa battle in the game." When my reload count seems awfully high for a relatively easy game, you'll know why. As to why I didn't just suck up the stoning and pay for healing, most of the combats took place on maps with no temples. In Llorkh, the only temple was the Temple of Bane.
Damn it.
I'll save the rest of the story for next time, but for now let's have some miscellaneous notes:
  • The developers introduced battles against margoyles like this about 50 times:
We get it. They blend with the wall. You're not being clever.
  • This game does a better job than previous Gold Box titles in alerting you when a major battle is about to happen:
  • The game is way too liberal with safe places to rest. There should have been one safe place per map. It would have made the entire game more challenging and tactical.
  • It occurred to me that my perception of how strong or valuable a character is as a fighter is highly correlated to his icon. I keep thinking of Broadside as doing more damage than everyone else because he has a two-handed weapon in his icon, despite the fact that I equipped him with a long sword ages ago.
Coming up next: the exciting conclusion to the game, or the really lame one, depending on whether I have any success re-attempting the final battle before then. You'll see what I'm talking about.

Time so far: 19 hours
Reload count: 11  


  1. "flasks of holy water, flaming oil, and mirrors."

    I've never done anything with these items in a GB game, and I'm curious how each of these items work. Do they work automatically or do you have to activate them through the Use command? When they are used, what do you see happen?

    1. The mirror, you have to hold like a weapon and it reflects the medusa's gaze. The other two, you ready and throw. Holy water damages undead, but if you have clerics to turn them, you hardly need it. Flaming oil damages anyone, but I don't find it more useful than just a regular attack.

    2. Isn't the flaming oil for attacking trolls?

    3. I suppose they would be the primary reason for it, but I think it works on anyone.

    4. I'm pretty sure that flaming oil does work on anyone, but the only time I remember it being useful is the first troll encounter in the slums of Pools of Radiance.

      Past that point, you generally have better options on your turn, since I think the oil does like 1-6 damage tops.

    5. The oil is definitely for keeping trolls down and stopping them from getting back up and regenerating after you kill them in lower levels.

    6. "The mirror, you have to hold like a weapon and it reflects the medusa's gaze."

      I'm pretty sure you know this, but just in case, the mirror can be held in the offhand/shield slot, so that you can keep your weapon in your main hand. One of the things I like about gazers is, while keeping a mirror is trivial as a solution, it basically forces you into having a worse armor class while you've got them equipped, giving an advantage to anything accompanying the gazers. And especially if you don't want to be fiddly in a dungeon that brings them in on and off, it's like a low-grade defensive penalty for an entire dungeon. It's well placed toward the end of the game, when you've probably got some decent magical shields, and it hurts a little more to leave them unequipped.

    7. I should have guessed, but no, I didn't know it. I never actually had a mirror in the game.

  2. I recall trying the final battle many, many times, but can't remember whether or not I ever won it, or whether I resorted to the anti-climax.

  3. Yes, the final battle of Gateway. I remember it almost as much as the Kobold battles in POR, but for all the wrong reasons. When a epic, final battle has you going "Huh? What? How?..." the game designers have failed. (I did win it, with a lot of grinding/dual classing to get around the level caps.)

  4. The final battles are the highlight in an otherwise bland and far too easy game.
    But what is ultra lame is that you can win the game by just walking from combat map to combat map, and you are not even supposed to kill Vaalgamon. I guess this is what Chester is alluding to.
    The end is a high point in the GB game, but it's up to the player to make it so.

    1. Right. What's particularly lame is that the game just assumes that you DIDN'T kill him. Ah, but I don't want to spoil the next two posts.

  5. So much of what I see above looks like a fantasy styled clone of buck rogers for the PC. Even a lot of the sprites and GUI plus monsters have a certain resemblance to those of buck rogers in general. I am not complaining per se, just saying it is something I noticed and wondering if it is just me that has.

    1. That's because the Buck Rogers game used a modified version of the Gold Box engine...

    2. Yes, Buck Rogers was a Gold Box game, but the fantasy games came first.

  6. I think this and the sequel were among the Gold Box games I played. Is this the one that features Shambling Mounds as random encounters that drop highly-enchanted plate mail? I remember thinking that was goofy. And I also seem to remember the final battles dropping a ton of other highly enchanted equipment (+5 swords and such), and then being peeved when none of it was allowed to carry over to the next game.

    1. Yeah, I talk about that in the next post. The shambling mounds are crazy. They don't just drop +3 plate mail, they drop +1 shields, ioun stones, +2 composite bows, and Cloaks of Displacement. I assume that was a programming error, with the items attached to the wrong creature.

      There's a battle with giant spiders in which they all turn out to have leather armor and swords, too.

    2. Always thought the gear was meant to represent the items of previous victims absorbed by the mounds and digested

    3. If it's not too late, try holding on to some more modest gear, like +2 swords and such. I seem to remember it was only the completely absurd stuff like the +5 swords and +3 plate (and maybe cloaks and ioun stones?) that disappeared in the transition.

  7. At the final battle series you can fight some shambling mounds, take their loot and retreat. This way you can start the battle series again better equipped after resting and healing.

    Make sure none of your characters dies, they get healed to full HP at the end but still remain dead, if you import them into Treasures you have to revive them (including permanent constitution loss).

    1. I never thought about that. You can retreat all the way back to entry after fighting the battles, and when you re-enter, the areas are still clear?

    2. No, you'll have to fight the battles again. But the losses on your path will be lower if everyone fights the battles wearing magical plate mail and the other good items from the beginning.

  8. How could you hate otyughs? They don't even appear in any D&D CRPGs nowadays. They deserve more love; including sacrols, moondogs, bulettes and, Lathander forbid, tarrasques.

    I've never got a chance to unleash a tarrasque on my players even when they reached epic levels & achieved demigod status. Any DMs here who has done it before and have your players survived?

    1. And the 3rd edition with questions like "if the Tarrasque is wielding two pit fiends are they considered as +5 weapons ?" truth to be told I would had loved to a be fly in the ceiling when that question was voiced. :p

      Though we had similar issues with "whales, tight spaces and extremely high altitudes".

      Thank god 3.5 had came out and saved from answering to that one as a GM since unlike 3.0 3.5 clearly stated that "creatures cannot be summoned to a habitat that doesn't support them" (ie. a fish on dry land).

  9. The tarrasque is highly overrated IMHO compared to e.g. some of the outer planars, especially after the appendix came out. I'm talking second edition here btw.

    And of course *nothing* scares players more than a rust monster :)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I dunno. Planars are tough, sure, but most don't regenerate and none requires to have their hit points whittled down to zero AND have a Wish spell cast spontaneously within the same round to kill it off.

      Can you name me one of these AD&D 2nd Edition planars that can take out a Tarrasque single-handedly?

    3. Pretty sure the Solaar is the baddest of the bunch.

      It's kind of an odd contest. Most of the powerful Planars can summon other Planars. So while a single Solaar can't quite kill the Tarrasque solo he can with the posse he Gates in.

      Most Baatezu and Tan'ari can as well IIRC.

    4. Well to kill Big T you probably need a Pit Fiend since he has the wish that´s required and can gate in reinforcements once per round with 100% chance of success to do the killing.

      But the scary thing about outer planars is the Teleport Without Error for even minor ones. Just imagine fighting an enemy that can attack you at any minute, never sleeps and if you can´t kill him in one round will just teleport out again. Forget about spell memorization. Think of BSG episode 33 if you know that one... Add illusions to turn every village and town against you and whatnot. It´s not just direct fighting power. :)

    5. Good call on that, I forgot about that whole "get it to -30 hp THEN cast a Wish, to wish it dead" requirement lol.

      Yeah, a "properly" DM'd Lower Planar should just wipe the floor with any party. One of those funny places where the DM kinda has to fudge things to avoid a TPK.

    6. @Andreas Mattern - See, the thing is that the Tarrasque (if you can pierce his AC in the 1st place) , the bugger regenerates without even resting.

      And I believe the Tarrasque is large enough to 'Swallow' a Pit Fiend whole for an insta-kill. The Tarrasque also never sleeps, smacks you dead in a single hit, gets back to full health if left alone for just a short moment and lay waste to entire towns & villages.

      I guess after his appearance in Monster Manual II, TSR nerfed the hell out of him later.

  10. I hope that Talldark survives the quest, retires from adventuring, and then goes into business - maybe as a private detective wearing a +1 fedora - together with a partner named Hansom.

    1. It was a stupid name. I was doing the cockney rhyming slang thing again.

      -Broadside Ballad - Paladin
      -Tall dark stranger - Ranger
      -Ghost writer - fighter

    2. When playing Legend of Grimrock I mixed up "Grimrock" and "Grimlock" the dinosaur bot from the Transformers. So my characters all had slightly mangled versions of Transformers names: Unicorn, Dumblebee, Starscreen...

    3. Me Grimlock! Me Smart now!

      Ah, those were the days, >30 years ago, damned I´m getting old...

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  12. "The game is way too liberal with safe places to rest. There should have been one safe place per map. It would have made the entire game more challenging and tactical."

    That's one thing I feel like they never got right in the first few batches of games past Curse or Pools. It kills the challenge in games like Gateway to just be able to rest anywhere.

    IIRC by PoD and DQoK they finally get it "right" again.

  13. Say 'No!' to safe spaces in monster-infested dungeons. inhibiting monsters from traveling where they choose makes our society weak.

    Kids these days grow up soft, without the XP that constant, punishing random encounters provide. Make Toril great again!

  14. Is it just me or does the "weave the two letters together" puzzle fall apart a few words in regardless of which end you start from?

  15. Do it word for word, not character for character. The left message contains the first, third, fifth etc. letter of each word: "costs all at it guard. castle the of corner southwest the to it take will guards the threatened if. dock the to down door south the through vault its from taken be will statue the." Read the words in reverse order to get the message.

  16. Interesting sidenote- you ran into Lord Nasher. Recently played through Neverwinter Nights, and he's still "town leader." Did some digging, found out NWN is set in 1372, Baldur's Gate in 1368, Pool of Radiance in 1350. If you can import your PoR characters, that makes Gateway around the same time. I guess in Toril if you're not a great hero with a noble destiny, you're just waiting to be destroyed by some great ancient evil.

    1. A few of the timelines depends on the source - eg the novel and the module for Pool of Radiance say 1340 - but in the PC game it's directly preceding the events in Curse of the Azure Bonds, which happens in 1357.

    2. Regarding "if you're not a great hero..." This is something that the original pen and paper setting books specifically tried to undercut by putting in non-heroic forces on a national level that were bigger and badder than a given party of heroes was ever likely to be.

      IIRC, the Flaming Fist (that was later featured so prominently in Baldur's Gate) was kind of the ultimate example of this - a mercenary company with thousands of leveled fighters, clerics and wizards led by a trio of very high-level characters. They weren't heroic or villainous; just in there as an example of a force that even the mightiest of PCs and worst of arch-villains would think twice about antagonizing.

      It took a little while for the lone heroic model to overrun the Realms.

    3. And the Harpers and the Zhentarim were the big, secretive players which turned many of the cogs that the characters would occasionally glimpse the extent of.

    4. But Bioware's NWN 1 & 2 allows your character to challenge and even eat gods.

  17. An easy way to kill Vaalgamon is to cast stinking cloud on him and take him out with arrows.

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  19. A fun fact, what I found out playing the game on New Year holidays. The main battle on the bridge in the Loudwater glitches if you fight all of the side encounters before it. After the first side encounters it really gets smaller. But then all of them are cleared, apparently some internal counter goes to -1 and in the main battle only the manticores appears. About the same amount as all of the enemies combined in the top screenshot, 25, I think.

    I actually won it, but I was playing cheap, using characters modified to all 18 stats, and it still was very tough.


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