Friday, December 9, 2016

Game 235: Legend of Lothian (1991)

Legend of Lothian
United States
Independently developed; published via September 1991 Jumpdisk
Released in 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 7 December 2016
Date Ended: 9 December 2016
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 87/232 (38%)
Rakning at Game #460: 193/460 (42%)

The defining part of an RPG--the addictive part--is character improvement. The idea that we can quantify the attributes that make us valuable and effective in the world, and then engage in a process of making them better; that we can build our capacity to take on new challenges. From serf to knight, from knight to champion. More than any other genre of games, RPGs impel a palpable--and, if I dare say, a very American--sense of progress.

That's why it's so depressing to meet a game like Legend of Lothian, which screws it all up by punishing you for getting better instead of rewarding you. In a classic dungeon crawler like Wizardry, here's the way it works: on Level 1, you fight the easiest enemies. On Level 2, you fight slightly harder enemies. By the time you hit Level 10, you're fighting the hardest enemies. If the characters need to develop their experience in a safe place, they can regress to an earlier level. Maybe you throw some unpredictability in there--maybe a Level 5 creatures has a small chance of showing up on Level 1--but in general you follow this pattern.
A typical Lothian screen has me approaching an island town while my ship lingers nearby.
It can be difficult extrapolating this to a flat world, I agree, but the basic concept should still apply. The area right around where the character starts is the "easy zone." As he explores in various directions he finds harder monsters. The ones behind the Black Gate or in an area that you've explicitly named the Vale of Darkness are the hardest. Sure, throw in some uncertainty by making the player figure out on his own that he shouldn't wander behind the Ghost Fence at Level 1. But leave an "easy area" that he can regress to.

Legend of Lothian's mistake is pinning the difficulty of monsters to the character's level. On Level 1, there's nothing but orcs everywhere. They die from one blow of a club. Once you hit Level 2, giant insects start showing up with the orcs. Level 3 adds mummies to the equation; Level 4, skeletons. Pretty soon, every few steps you face a horror show of at least 10 enemies, and 50% of battles still kill you outright. You're not accomplishing anything.
A difficult combat early in the game.
And yet, you still have to keep fighting. Why? Because of food. There's a tight formula at work in this game:
  • You deplete 1 ration every 5 steps
  • Food costs 1 gold piece per ration in the starting city and 2 gold pieces per ration everywhere else. Hit points regenerate at a rate of 1 per 5 steps
  • At any level, I typically lose half the amount of hit points in combat as I gain in gold.
So here's how the math works out: I fight a combat against a few foes that nets me 20 gold pieces but costs me 10 hit points. It takes me 50 steps to regain those 10 hit points. In those same 50 steps, I consume 10 food units. Those food units cost me 10 gold to replace in Larkspur and 20 gold everywhere else. None of this accounts for the food consumed just walking between places. There has never been a game that made me feel like I was so literally living hand-to-mouth.
Constantly satisfying the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy is exactly what every RPG player wants.
Legend of Lothian is an Ultima clone written by Cal Poly student David W. Meny and published via the September 1991 issue of the Amiga magazine Jumpdisk. A handful of probably non-representative titles (the Dark Designs series and Dungeons of Avalon, chiefly) have led me to look irrationally forward to diskmag games, which often offer short, satisfying quests. In everything but the leveling issue, Lothian is at least competent, rising in moments to Ultima I or II in quality.

It starts with a well-written and illustrated backstory that quickly sets up the main quest: King Lothian of Mercia once ruled a propsperous, peaceful kingdom, but one day he didn't wake up, and no method magical or mechanical could rouse him from his slumber. Without his leadership, the country fell to ruin and orcs roam the land freely. The game's main quest is to help the land develop a better governing system so that the loss of a single leader doesn't cripple it.
A clear homage to Lord British.

And perhaps a reference to Questron.
No, just kidding! The game's main quest is, of course, to find a way to wake up Lothian. The character is a poor shepherd. One night, a bearded man visits his dreams and tells him that only he can awaken Lothian. The old man leaves a glowing gemstone behind which is still there when the character wakes up. He gathers what money he can and sets out the next day. The player gets to specify only the character's name and sex.
The quest begins.
The game starts next to the village of Larkspur (also a city in California next to where Meny currently lives) with the character in possession of 10 gold pieces, 300 food, and 10 hit points. And unless the player really wants to die, it stays there for a while. The only way to get ahead in the game is to upgrade weapons and armor, and that requires saving your razor-thin combat profits until you have a mace and a chainmail (Larkspur doesn't sell any better), a solid supply of food, and enough money to upgrade to a crossbow and platemail when you come across it. After a few hours of grinding here, you can start exploring the rest of the land and its cities, probably starting with Castle Lothian to the east.

Navigation uses the arrow keys and 12 commands drawn from the Ultima mold, such as (B)oard ship, (C)limb, and (T)alk. There is no "search" command, so what you see is what you get in terms of the game world. For those more graphically-oriented players, a series of buttons replicates the keyboard commands, and you can even move around with the mouse.

The cities are fairly small, with weapon, armor, and food shops, inns, healers, and bars. Buying drinks in the bars can be a source of information.
An important clue.
At first, the healer and inn seem like wastes of money, since hit points regenerate automatically as you walk, but after you pass a certain threshold, it becomes more economical to spend the money directly on healing rather than waste food by walking around.

Weapon progression goes club > dagger > mace > sword > crossbow. Armor is cloth > leather > ringmail > chainmail > platemail. Eventually, you get the coordinates and chants for the Shrine of Protection and the Shrine of Might, where you find magical armor and weapons, accordingly--akin to the mystic weapons of Ultima.
Obtaining a magic weapon at a shrine.
Unlike the early Ultima games, you don't see enemies in the wilderness. You just blunder into their squares. In combat, the only options are to attack or to flee. (The character has an "S" statistic that I'm guessing was supposed to be spell points, but there is in fact no magic system in the game and the statistic never budges.) Fleeing becomes preferable late in the game when combats are just an annoyance, although it often doesn't work. Combat is highly deterministic. Your armor affects the likelihood of a hit but not the damage. Orcs always do 1 damage, lizard men always do 7, red dragons always do 13, and so on. No matter how many enemies you're fighting, only one can hit you per round (I have no idea how the game determines which one takes the shot). Meanwhile, the character's weapon always does a fixed amount of damage to the enemies, from 4 (clubs) all the way up to 100 (magical).
Crossbows always do 40 damage; red dragons always do 13.
Once the character is Level 10 and has the best armor and weapons and at least 500 food, you can at least try to start exploring the land. It never gets really easy. There were plenty of times even at high levels that I started out, fought three or four combats, and had to turn around and return before the city had even left my sight. Once you find the mystics, combat becomes less deadly--just in time for it to become really annoying. You're trying to crisscross the land to find clues and items, and you have to keep stopping to deal with 15 giant worms, 3 red dragons, 2 cyclopes, and an orc. Fleeing stops working once enemy stacks top 12-15. The sheer number of combats soon wears on your patience.
Come on. I'm just trying to get to my ship.
The map comprises 149 squares east-west and 73 squares north-south. It does not wrap. There are 6 cities, 3 castles, 2 shrines, 1 cave, and 1 set of ruins to explore. Some of the locations are only accessible by ship, which you obtain in the town of Marlot by flashing your green gem at the shipwright (he had a dream that portended your arrival); it otherwise costs 5,000 gold pieces which would take a long time to save up. Once you have the ship, it's easier to explore by circling the continent and darting inland where necessary, since the serpents that attack you on the high seas never number more than 8 and can usually be fled.

I made the game more difficult for myself until the end by not finding a key artifact, the Orb of Sight, in Forlorn's dungeon. This item creates a small mini-map of the area for you. I misunderstood the hints and thought it would be a quest reward rather than something I could just go grab; I also failed to realize that an inauspicious grate in the castle was in fact an entrance to his dungeon.
The Orb of Sight would have come in handy when I was trying to find the various towns and castles.
NPCs have more to say than in the early Ultimas. There aren't that many of them, so almost every one is vital in some way.

Although this guy doesn't seem to be referencing anything in this game.
And this woman is just high.
Winning the game requires finding a variety of clues and items from the NPCs in the various towns. Since you don't know the order at the outset, there's a lot of backtracking involved. The basic sequence of events is:

1. Get a skeleton key from a prisoner in Castle Lothian's "brig."
2. Use the skeleton key to enter Forlorn Castle.
3. Get a quest from the mad King Forlorn to bring back a mirror.
Forlorn's servant warns me about him.

4. Find a rose in Castle Forlorn. Also get a compass here that helps with navigation. (Although, oddly, the "compass" gives coordinates instead of directions.)
5. Go to the city of Wenhea and find the maiden obsessed with her own reflection in the mirror. Give her the rose to remind her that there are more beautiful things; she gives you the mirror.
A bartender tells me what to do.
6. Return the mirror to Forlorn; get the next quest to find some magic wood.
7. In one of the towns--I forget which one--find an axe.
8. Visit the old wizard in a set of caves on the western coast and get an amulet that protects against marsh gases.
This is the guy that appeared in my dream, but no other explanation is given.
9. Find the magic tree in the marshes to the northeast and cut it down.
A woman gives me a hint as to the location of the tree.
10. Return the wood to Lord Forlorn and get his final quest to return with a unicorn.
11. Repeat the whole rose/mirror thing because you need the mirror but Forlorn took it. Also get a rope from a shepherd in Larkspur.
12. Use the mirror at the ruins to Hesron, where a medusa has entrapped a unicorn. The medusa sees her reflection and turns to stone.
This is what happens if you enter without using the mirror first.

13. Use the rope to get the unicorn.

14. Bring the unicorn back to the mad king. He gives you a "worthless animal horn" and laughs maniacally. Suspect that the horn is in fact the now-dead unicorn's horn. Feel bad.
15. Go to the evil castle on an western island and blow the animal horn to gain entry. The castle has "bombs" every few steps that you can't avoid and mimics for every door. Fight down to the lower level and explore the maze until you find the evil wizard.
Fighting an evil castle door after setting off bomb traps.
16. Defeat the evil wizard in combat and get his book of spells.
The game never tells you what this guy's story is. Judging by his face, he certainly has one.
But he leaves the quest object behind.
17. Return the book to Castle Lothian and read it in front of the sleeping king.
The bugged ending in my version. I love how they just propped the sleeping king up on his throne.
Now, my version of the game is bugged. If I read the book in front of the king, I get a message that I've found an "Awaken" spell and that I follow the text's instructions. But then it says "Save Mercia!" and "Your quest begins," suddenly reverting to the opening text. A YouTube video shows what's supposed to happen: Lothian wakes up, there's a big party, the king takes control again, the army comes together and scours the land of monsters, and the hero goes back to tending sheep, but continues studying the spellbook on the side.
The "real" ending screen from Milan Stezka's YouTube video.
I won the game in a long 7 hours, and the entire time I just wanted it to be over. The first 2/3 was too deadly; the last 1/3 was just annoying, with combats every few steps and each one taking a couple of minutes. It GIMLETs at a 23, with the highest scores (3s) going to the decent plot, the use of NPCs, and the always-relevant economy. I also liked the completely redundant mouse and keyboard commands. But it suffers (1s) in encounters--there is nothing special about the monsters except how hard they hit--and the no-tactics combat system.

Lothian was Meny's only RPG, and only one of two games I can find credited to him (the other is a solitaire title), but it's the first in a trio of Ultima clones that we'll be seeing over the next few weeks. The others are Journey into Darkness (if I can get it working) and The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron. It makes sense that developers clone Ultima--it's a popular platform--but the Ultima clones I've played so far don't seem to clone much more than the iconographic view, the keyboard interface, and perhaps some one-line NPC interaction. Does any Ultima clone copy the really good stuff about Ultima--particularly IV and V? The dialogue options? The tactical combat system? I guess we'll find out.

Journey into Darkness's starting screen, telling me that I'm a "rouge."
Note on Journey into Darkness: I have the game working, but I can't quite figure out what the game wants in terms of controls. It has two modes, switchable on my keyboard by the period on the number pad: one in which you move the character around, and one in which you move a cursor around the screen and use it to pick up objects and activate the two menus.

This leaves me confused as to what the game's original controller was. The first mode seems optimized for a joystick; the second for a mouse. You need both modes to play the game. Is it possible that it literally required switching between a joystick and mouse?

In any event, if I emulate the mouse in AppleWin, nothing happens when I click around the screen and on the menus. And I'm finding that moving the cursor around the screen with the keypad is far too imprecise to play the game without going crazy. This is a pretty amateur effort anyway, so I don't know if we'll lose anything by skipping it, but I wanted to see if anyone could offer an opinion on how to better emulate the controls.


  1. The controls require both Joystick buttons:

    Both joystick buttons are used. The first one controls selections and
    combat functions while the second button switches modes from game play to menu selections and back.

    The eight boxes in the upper right hand corner of the screen are the
    contents of your character's pockets. Items can be examined, used,
    stolen, or dropped. The "Thing" menu allows you to manipulate the items you gain along the way.

    The item you are currently holding is used for combat and the one you are wearing is used for defensive capabilities. To exchange items, simply point to one of the items in your pockets and follow the on screen instructions.

    1. I feared that was the case. I can't imagine it was easy to move the cursor around with a joystick, either. I guess I'll give it a try even if it's excruciating.

    2. > the second button switches modes from game play to menu selections and back

      Oh, the Vi of video games. Interesting.

    3. Well, I spend all my workday in front of one or more terminals running vi or shell for $dayjob (vi is my IDE), so it wasn't a stretch for me to see the relation. :)

    4. Bear in mind that the joysticks on the Apple ][ were mainly analog, which would make it easier to control the menus. Though probably still a really large pain.

    5. Now we need a game based on emacs.


      Will this do?

    7. When he reaches 2012, we can force him to play

    8. Laurence: Finally got around to checking, and none of them are RPGs, sadly.

  2. "Does any Ultima clone copy the really good stuff about Ultima--particularly IV and V?"

    Yes but only much later. Thinking of shareware RPGs Excelsior: Lysandia phase I" and "Nahlakh"

    1. The Exile Trilogy from SpiderWeb Software comes to mind too.

    2. Nahlakh is like 10% Ultima and 90% Wizard's Crown IMO, the emphasis being on combat, which it does far better than the Ultima games.

    3. The Mac-only indie title Cythera is probably the best and truest Ultima clone out there.

    4. Josh, I'd say Exile is probably closer to U6 than U4 or U5, but you have a point.

    5. Hey Pedro, have you played the original ones from the early 90s? Jeff Vogel has remade the games 3? times, but the original ones from the 90s are U3/4/5 clones. (I think they are free from the SpiderWeb Software page.)

      I'd agree that the remakes, with the isomorphic graphics are U6 clones. Either way, they are all super fun.

  3. i suspect Meny was a Marillion fan, as the high woman is actually quoting their song Sugar Mice at you. Also, Marillion had a song called Heart Of Lothian (that I only vaguely remember - my brother was the Marillion fan). I think the song was about growing up in Edinburgh rather than high fantasy cliches, however.

    1. Shoot Fahr... you beat me on the Marillion references!

      Mercia was also mentioned in The Quest for the Holy Grail.

      Ambrosia Software could be a reference to the land of Ambrosia in Ultima III as well...

      I've not heard of this one before, it reminds me on an Ultima clone that I had for MS-DOS back in the day... I can't recall the name of it, but while interesting, you usually died well before you could really play it.

    2. Also disappointed to have lost the race to point out the Marillion references. :-) In case anyone's interested, here's a link to Sugar Mice by Marillion:

      Lothian is the region in Scotland surrounding Edinburgh. Fish, Marillion's lead singer, hails from Dalkeith in Lothian.

      Some googling suggests that Peter, Daphne and Brutus reference the Amiga platformer "Peter's Quest: For the Love of Daphne".

  4. Mercia was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, so I can see this being a not-so-veiled reference to Lord British. The picture of the red dragon is directly lifted from a D & D illustration (cover of the boxed Basic Set).

  5. > Larkspur (also a city in California next to where Meny currently lives)

    Well, Larkspur is a fitting place to link to a land of faerie...

  6. By the way, the video you linked clearly shows that the "S" statistic depletes when you use the Orb of Sight.

    1. Well, it does seem to do that. I tested it out with my own game. Using the Orb makes it go from 100 to 1, but that doesn't prevent you from immediately using the Orb again. So I still don't know what the statistic is really FOR.

  7. As far as I am aware - JRPGs, even more than ERPGs, embrace the level-up/evolution means of progression, in some cases, even applying the concepts to items.

    My favourite example of leveling up comes from the German roguelike ADoM - where on some occasions you bear witness to a monster gaining a level :)

    1. In the Mysterious Dungeon series--console roguelikes--monsters occasionally kill one another and level up. This can screw you over but good.

    2. No one wants to be alone with a prejudice, but if there's any group of people out there who thinks "console roguelike" is an oxymoron, I'll flirt with membership.

    3. I guess as is the trend on this blog it depends where you draw the line. Many games identified as rogue-like (or possibly "rogue-lite," depending on whom you ask) are in the modern genre played in real time with smaller control sets than you'd find in something like Nethack. Side-scrolling setups, even, are common. You could totally play something like Risk of Rain on a console.

    4. I read descriptions of several Mystery Dungeon games. The only claim they seem to have on the "roguelike" title is a) being inspired to some degree by Rogue and b) being very hard.

      A roguelike features permadeath, randomly-generated dungeons, permadeath, complex inventory management, ASCII graphics, and a large variety of commands to interact with the game world. If they have graphics, then they have tilesets that sit on top of the ASCII graphics. I will accept the subtraction of one of these items and still call it a "roguelike" if it otherwise feels that way. No more. Given this list, I don't believe a true roguelike for a console is possible.

    5. By the way, none of this should take away from XeoG's original point, which is that in this particular series, enemies can actually level up by killing other enemies. The only place I've ever seen this is in Stuart Smith's Fracas and more recently in Shadow of Mordor. That's a pretty cool mechanic.

    6. The "what is a roguelike" discussion is always made obfuscated by a list of necessary criteria that is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I think a roguelike is any dungeon crawler that features that "you move one space, the enemy moves one space" format, with permadeath and randomized floors (and potion effects, preferably) as important traits too. To insist a genre should adhere to the graphical limitations of a game made in 1980 always struck me as unnecessary.

      Speaking of beholders, you've got one of the first "fake roguelikes" coming up in 1993 with Dungeon Hack. I'd be curious to hear your take on it. After EotB 2 and 3, of course.

    7. Yes, but this being my blog, discussions about roguelikes on it have the benefit of using my definitions. See also: "What is an RPG."

    8. What is interesting is that while I have a very strict definition of a RL, I don't count permadeath as one of my criteria. Castle of the Winds fits my definition very well, but does not have permadeath.

    9. There's no inherent limitation that prevents a true roguelike -even according to the Addict's strict definition- from appearing on a console. The biggest issue would be control limitations, but most* of the time the more complex control elements are redundant (Angband derived games have a different control bound to activating several different kinds of magic item, for example) or seldom used commands ("wipe face" in ADOM, for example) that would be easy to shove in a menu without becoming cumbersome. Indeed, fully functional versions of some games have been ported to the DS if you can get it onto the console in the first place.

      The primary issue is that consoles don't let you run just any software the way PCs do and circumventing this isn't exactly easy (or, depending on location, legal), so there's little development incentive for what is, almost by definition, a primarily homemade product.

    10. > I read descriptions of several Mystery Dungeon games. The only claim they seem to have on the "roguelike" title is a) being inspired to some degree by Rogue and b) being very hard.

      Luckily for us, someone has solved this problem of the right name to use for one of the umpteen different categories of "roguelike" that people all call roguelike.

    11. Rogue's features that lead to its replayability came from its combination of permadeath, randomly generated content and interesting strategic and tactical concerns. I think if a game has all those features it can be considered part of the lineage.

      I like this breakdown:

  8. Your comment about the American-ness of the RPG cliche reminds me of an article I just read (and think you would very much like) about how Gary Gygax tries to make a generic RPG setting, and accidentally made it a very American one without realizing it. "d&d is anti-medieval" from Blog of Holding: I think you'd very much like it, and would love your opinion on it and how it relates to CRPGs.

    1. I think it was by accident rather than design - Greyhawk was iteratively created based on the needs of a dungeon-delving boardgame. 'What do we do with this treasure? Better create a town for you to spend it in'. The world is incoherent for the same reason Wizardry's is. It's just a bolted together sequence of areas for players to die in. :)

      Because D&D is very player-centric, it's inevitably going to have less focus on an established order. After all, if there are already kingdoms each exerting a monopoly of force within their borders, what are players to do? Any problem of sufficient size will just be squashed by the local lord. That's why the action regularly takes place in the frontiers of human civilisation - and why it has a rather colonialist feel to it. The PCs are 'taming' the wilderness and its native inhabitants.

      Also, consider two of his influences: Conan and LotR. Conan takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. Atlantic was destroyed and pockets of humanity survived, and are now returning to strength, reclaiming the wilderness. Middle-Earth is a world in decline. Human, elven and dwarven society are all echoes of what they were and the ancient and unknown and evil things are encroaching on the land.

    2. Well, I've been scooped. I've had a posting in draft form for about half a year that argues so closely what this article argues that if I had actually published it, you would have thought I plagiarized it.

      My thesis was that D&Ds-style fantasy more closely represents the American myths of the Old West than any medieval source. I can't imagine I would have come up with a better ending line: "A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream."

      However, in my comment above, I was alluding to more than just the flexibility of societal role and the lack of government. I was also talking about the somewhat-uniquely American fad for "self-improvement" as embodied by the 6 thousand books you'll find on the subject in every bookstore, Tony Robbins, Stephen Covey, and so forth. It seems an accepted part of our culture that we can target desirable traits and exercise them like biceps. The act of quantifying those attributes is a natural outgrowth. I'm actually surprised that someone hasn't published a popular series of books that attempt to give real-life individuals a "character sheet" on which they quantify strength, endurance, personality, etc.

    3. I'd say that the fact the two of you thought this up independently lends credence to it.

    4. A character sheet with stats fir improvement? Like temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, etc.? Franklin did that nearly 300 years ago.

  9. Chet has already written the first post about Magic Candle II earlier this year, but the blogging software ate the whole article with no backups.

  10. Ancients 1: Death Watch was one of the few games I legitimately purchased back then. It's an odd game and manages to be horrifically ugly. That's all I remember about it, actually. There was a sequel, so it must have done alright somehow.

  11. I like to think that the monsters can spot when you go from level x to level x+1 because of some metaphysical glow or perhaps extra bulging and throbbing meatflesh muscles growing on you immediately to give you extra HP. They know they're weaker than you and avoid you.

    Doesn't explain why you're not attacked by a level 8 monster while you're still level 1, though.

  12. As someone who themselves wrote a very short Ultima clone in high school for an IT unit, I should say that the attraction in cloning the overworld aspects of Ultima I is that it is exceptionally simple to code and the graphics are very simple for non-artists to generate.

    The wireframe dungeon aspects of Ultima I are tougher. The AI and targeting aspects of the top-down battle systems are tougher again. Not sure if this all really matters to people who are ostensibly professional programmers but it mattered to me.

  13. Paladin's Legacy on the TRS-80 Color Computer has the same problem of food-to-gold at the beginning... I literally gave up playing because it was impossible to advance. Apparently there was some elven lord who would heal you a fair clip away from the starting location, but how would you even know to find it?

    I think this particular issue comes about from the lack of playtesting. Specifically, by someone NOT involved in the game's design and coding. Just having one person play the game who doesn't automatically know where to go and what to do can reveal all sorts of pacing and balance issues that you'd never have noticed as the designer.

  14. In an interesting coincidence, Larkspur is also a small town about 45 minutes south of Denver where the state's renaissance fair is held. In the minds of the average Coloradan, at least, I expect the name is closely aligned with pseudo-medieval stuff.


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