Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Seventh Link: Making a Living the Old Hard Way

Approaching a dungeon. For this screenshot, I'm using an odd option to toggle the color palette.
For whatever reason, I didn't give up on this game. I kept playing and grinding for an hour here, an hour there, running around trying to find monsters to fight, fighting them, and retreating to the castle (and its pool of healing) when my hit points got too low. Alas, the process took so long that I accidentally deleted some of the screenshots that pertain to the earlier parts of this entry, assuming they were so old that I must have used them already.

You may recall from my previous entry that the game's primary problem, at least in the early game, is an economic one. Food depletes fast, and you need a constant investment of money to replenish it. Also, most of the places that you need to explore have locked doors, and keys cost 100 gold pieces each at the guild. Meanwhile, enemies are hard to find and enemies that drop treasure chests are even harder to find. Even when you find them, they often don't drop treasure chests, and when they do, the treasure chests are often trapped or contain a pine torch instead of gold. (I learned to love the sight of an orc icon, as orcs drop treasure chests most of the time.) Making 100 gold pieces, enough for a single key, can easily take an hour--an hour in which you've expended nearly 100 gold pieces in food.
Orcs reliably leave treasure chests.
Things loosened when I opened a door in the castle's underground and found a very large treasure hoard. Around the same time, I ran out of doors to open with keys, so I didn't have to keep investing in that resource. I was able to buy a larger stock of food and better weapons and armor for my two characters. I got my main character up to Level 5 and my secondary to Level 3, and I managed to explore the first level of the only accessible dungeon.

To recap, The Seventh Link takes place on an alien planet populated by remnants of humanity fleeing a destroyed Earth. To make the planet "grow" more quickly, the ancient astronauts seeded its core with a contained black hole, but thousands of years later, the singularity threatens to break its containment unless the player can re-energize it by finding seven "energy packs" hidden by the astronauts and use them to re-charge seven "superconducting bands." The whole backstory is given in epistolary form (captain's logs and such), but it's not hard to figure out by reading between the lines.
The game gets a little easier for the party.
It's an original plot (at least, as far as RPGs go), but I'm often uncomfortable with the blending of science fiction and fantasy. The world that coalesces around the black hole somehow has giants, dwarves, elves, and magic, which doesn't make a lot of sense. I have the same issue in Might and Magic, where I find it difficult to reconcile magic, undead, and resurrections with a sci-fi narrative.

Anyway, the plot promises to cross multiple planets in the system, but the opening action begins on Elira. Because of mountain ranges and water obstacles, the player can only explore about one-third of the continent at the game's outset, where he can find one unnamed castle, one unnamed town, and one unnamed dungeon. The castle has most of the services you need--weapons, armor, food, healing, guilds--but you have to buy the aforementioned keys to access all of it.
In town, most NPCs ignore you. Only about four have had anything to say.
The large castle map has an equally-large underground, much of it constructed as a maze. A large section of it is water, and you have to find a boat to navigate. In this underground, I eventually found a joinable NPC, a thief named Hagromil. Having him made combat a little easier. I also found the mages' guild and the thieves' guild, where characters can level up. (They level up for free at their own class's guild, or for 100 gold pieces at another guild.)
Leveling at the guild.
As I mentioned earlier, the underground also contained a large treasure hoard, and it would have saved me a lot of time if I'd discovered it earlier. The town had another, smaller one. There are a few odd things to do with treasure in this game. First, chests are often trapped. Unlike most other games, if the trap goes off and damages the party, it neither deactivates nor disappears. You don't get the gold and the trap remains active to damage you subsequent times you try to open the chest. However, each chest's trap status seems to be assigned upon loading the game, so simply saving and reloading will clear a lot of the traps.

Second, the "steal" command works oddly in this game. It seems to have been designed to allow the character to steal across counters in shops, but the weird byproduct of the system is that it only works on people and objects two squares away from the party icon. And it works across any boundary. So if you see a chest on the other side of a wall, you can hit (S)teal to somehow cross the barrier and get the chest. Trying this in town is a bad idea, though, as it fails most of the time and aggravates the guards. This status seems to be permanent.
Even though I can't get into the area, I can steal the first row of chests "across" the wall.
Unfortunately, unlike Ultima III (the game that Link most resembles), chests don't respawn when you leave the area--not in towns, not in dungeons. "Found" gold is thus finite.
Eventually, I ran out of things to do in the castle and town. Neither location has a place to buy ships (and you can't take the one in the castle underground out of the underground), so I'm not sure how I'll eventually explore the rest of the continent. I suspect that the dungeon has multiple exits, one of which may lead me to the other side of the mountains.
You do not want to step in lava in the dungeons.
Like the early Ultimas, dungeon exploration switches to first-person view. The graphics are odd and hard to get used to; it looks like walls directly in front of you are several moves away. There are the usual accoutrements: chests, doors, ladders, fountains, pits, traps. Monsters patrol fixed locations and do not respawn when you leave the dungeon and return. They aren't very numerous.
This wall is actually directly ahead of me. I cannot move forward.
The first two levels were a large 22 x 22, though in the "worm tunnel" variety, with spaces between walls. Both levels had yellow pillars that don't seem to have any function. They also have squares of lava that equal instant death. Level 1 had battles with fighters and evil clerics, but Level 2 introduced slimes that have to be killed with magic. They just keep dividing when attacked with weapons.
Combat in the dungeon.
You can't save in dungeons, but I abused an emulator save state to see what would happen if I fell down a pit. Oddly, the party didn't take any damage, but the damned thing took me down 13 levels. That's a pretty big dungeon for this kind of game, and I get the impression that it isn't the only one.

I got attacked by demons and killed on the lowest level, but I'm sure I can survive it eventually. My bigger concerns are travel and torches. I haven't seen any evidence that the game offers spells to move up, down, or out of the dungeon, and it's going to get awful annoying to backtrack in and out after a few levels. Perhaps worse, I'm not sure how to carry enough torches for the journey. The characters' shared inventory is finite, and while you can pack it with a lot of items, torches puff out quite quickly. (The game features both cheap pine torches and expensive enchanted torches; I haven't noticed that the latter last any longer or do anything different.) I could easily see running out on, say, Level 5. There's a "Light" spell in the cleric spellbook, but I'd have to find a cleric.
The first dungeon level. The game offers no sense of direction, so I'm not sure if the orientation is "right."
So that's where I am. I spent a long time grinding to get my characters to a place that they could survive, but it looks like I've simply swapped one long, boring process for another one. Especially after all the mechanical dungeon-delving in The Game of Dungeons, I'm not particularly in the mood to again map a huge, multi-leveled structure in which nothing much happens. However, I'll resist the urge to title this "Summary and Rating" and give it at least a few more hours.

Time so far: 10 hours

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Revisiting: The Game of Dungeons (1975)

Hey, look who's at the top of the list!
The Game of Dungeons
United States
Independently developed in 1975 on the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
PLATO lesson name dnd is sometimes given as the name of the game
Date Started: 24 February 2012
Date Ended: 25 January 2019
Total Hours: 44
Difficulty: Medium (3/5), with a lot of variance depending on playing style
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 53/316 (17%)

In preparation for taking another look at the Daniel Lawrence DND series, including Telengard, I wanted to revisit another very early PLATO RPG: The Game of Dungeons, more commonly known by its file name, dnd. It was among the first two or three computer RPGs ever created, after The Dungeon (which we just reviewed) and perhaps Orthanc.

The primary authors of The Game of Dungeons were Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood. The history file available on PLATO says they were inspired by The Dungeon, but other sources--including the recollections of The Dungeon's author, Reginald Rutherford--say that Rutherford created The Dungeon after programming on The Game of Dungeons had already started. Rutherford's simpler game helped fill the students' RPG cravings until The Game of Dungeons was finished later that year. The two games share a number of features, but it's not clear whether that's because The Game of Dungeons developers shared their plans with the faster Rutherford, or if Rutherford came up with the elements and inspired the later game.

Shortly after the first version of The Game of Dungeons was released, Dirk Pellett transferred from Caltech to Iowa State University, which was connected to PLATO. He became instantly addicted to The Game of Dungeons and sent so many suggestions for improvements to its authors that they gave him editing privileges. Later, Dirk's brother, Flint Pellett also contributed to the game. The earliest extant version on PLATO, 5.4, bears the names of Whisenhunt, Wood, and both Pellett brothers, and is dated 1977. A later version, 8.0, dates to 1978. Most of what I will discuss below relates to version 5.4, although I'll look at the other versions towards the end.
An overview, written much later, by one of the original authors.
I covered the game only briefly back in February 2012, ultimately doubting that it was functionally possible to win it. On that point, I was later proven wrong, first by Nathan at "CRPG Adventures," who won in 2014 (coverage starts here), then later by Ahab at "Data-Driven Gamer," who won in 2018 (coverage starts here). In winning, both of them unearthed important facts about the game that I overlooked, and I particularly want to commend Ahab, who--in the true spirit of his blog's name--recorded hundreds of trials to determine the best spell to use against each monster and also created a full set of maps for the dungeon's 20 levels.

In fact, between the two of them, Nathan and Ahab described the game so exhaustively that this entire entry is mostly for internal comprehensiveness; I can only control and guarantee the continued availability of my own material. There's also a vanity element to it. I wanted to be able to say that I won The Game of Dungeons despite that winning taking many hours I could have spent on other games.

In basic concept, The Game of Dungeons isn't much different from The Dungeon. The character--a multi-classed fighter/magic-user/cleric, with a set of D&D-derived attributes--enters a dungeon and starts encountering randomly-placed monsters and treasures. Against the monsters, his primary weapons are spells, and when he exhausts his spell slots, he must return to the entrance to recharge them. Returning to the entrance also converts gold to experience (in a way). Combat is generally resolved instantly, with no consideration of "rounds," and with no feedback on hits or damage. The dungeon layout is fixed, but treasure positions are randomized every time you enter (or, in the case of The Game, change levels). There are doors and secret doors. Dungeon layout affects the chances of evading enemies in combat. Both games feature permadeath.
I'm doing well here. I just arrived in the square to find $197,291 and a Level 374 demon (a "pushover" at my level). I'm above Level 1,000 and have over 12,000 hit points and a full set of magical gear. Unfortunately, this character got careless and died.
Beyond that, there are a few differences. The Game of Dungeons is larger, offering 20 levels of 9 x 9 to The Dungeon's single level of 30 x 30. It has more magical objects to find (The Dungeon just had a magic sword), but oddly fewer monsters. In the whole game, you only encounter seven of them (aside from the one dragon): deaths, demons, ghouls, men, specters, wizards, and "glass," which looks like a guy with glasses. There must have been some in-joke there. The Dungeon capped character development very quickly, and even monsters never got higher than Level 6, while The Game has essentially endless leveling for both monsters and the character.

The Game offers four attributes for the character--strength, dexterity, intelligence, and wisdom--and (unlike The Dungeon) lets you re-roll if you don't like the starting values. This is worth taking some time to do because during gameplay, only strength can reliably be improved. Where The Dungeon was often cruel in its randomization of numbers, The Game will generally offer four values above 12 within half a dozen rolls, and within a couple of dozen, you can get all variables above 15.
Attribute rolls are generous during character creation.
Perhaps most important, The Game is far easier than The Dungeon, although it lasts far longer. When you play The Dungeon, you're playing a game of luck, hoping that you can amass 20,000 experience points (probably from treasure) before something like a Level 6 ghoul shrugs off your spell and kills you in melee combat. In The Game, by contrast, the level of monsters you encounter and their response to your attacks is almost 100% deterministic and, thus, controllable. Among your advantages:
  • On Level 1 of the dungeon, you never encounter monsters higher than Level 1 themselves.
  • Unless you're carrying gold, monsters will have a maximum level of roughly that dungeon level x 2.
  • If you are carrying gold, monsters will have a maximum level of roughly the dungeon level x 2 plus your gold / 5000. Once you start collecting large amounts of gold, the dungeon level becomes essentially irrelevant to the difficulty of combat.
  • You can drop, cache, and stop picking up gold at any time.
  • Each monster has an empirically-determinable weakness to at least one cleric spell and one mage spell.
  • If the monster is of equal or lower level than you, your spell will kill it almost 100% of the time.
"Fight all below" is a useful command that has you automatically attack trivially-easy monsters.
Other variables at play in the game are less sure, such as the damage you're likely to take if you fight instead of casting a spell, or the consequences of opening a treasure chest. But just with the six points above, you can carefully control your progress through the game, making it long and boring--excruciatingly so at times--but fundamentally easy. Until I figured out these rules and settled in to my final character, the number one thing to kill me was greed and impatience, usually manifested by opening treasure chests when I wasn't sure they were safe, or refusing to drop gold once acquired.
Killing monsters results in a victory message like "Zzapp!," or "Swiss cheese!," or "Eat 'em alive!"
As with The Dungeon, gold is the primary mechanism of character development here. For every 4,000 gold pieces that you take out of the dungeon, you get one more maximum hit point. Naturally, this grows slowly at first, but by the tenth hour, a single trip might add a couple thousand hit points at a time. You get another magic user spell slot for every 10,000 gold and another cleric spell slot for every 16,000, although these both cap at 25 slots, which you hit relatively early--within an hour, once you know what you're doing.

You can't ignore experience from monsters, however. It's treated separately from gold. Your experience level--which is the most important variable in combat--is defined as your current experience total divided by 10,000.

Here's where treasure chests make things insidious. When opened, they can offer both gold and direct experience, and the values they offer are high multiples of the current dungeon level. On Level 1, for instance, loose piles of gold rarely top 50 each. Running through all 81 squares might give you 1,000 gold pieces on average. But opening a chest on Level 1 could easily give you 20,000 gold pieces, plus an equal number of experience points. Opening chests saves hours--days, potentially. Except that 1 in 4 will blow up and kill you, forcing you to lose all your progress.
When you die, the game tells you what killed you. "The Dungeon" means that a trap killed you.
At some point, chests stop being deadly on their levels. For instance, by about character Level 10, no chest on dungeon Level 1, even if booby-trapped, was capable of killing me outright. But because the consequences are so severe, I didn't test how this formula developed for chests below Level 1. (My best guess is that maximum damage from treasure chests is roughly the level squared x 25.) When you encounter a chest, you have an option to examine it for traps, and at least 95% of the time, your attempt is unsuccessful (the game says that it's too dark). To have any chance of reaching the end, you have to simply adopt a policy not to open such chests, as infuriating as it is to leave so much treasure and experience behind.

That's true for anything beyond the first hour, anyway. When your character is new, you might as well just open every chest you encounter and hope for the best, because a few chests can save you from going mad trying to build the character 50 gold pieces at a time. After you hit a certain level, you can still open chests on Level 1 without worry--and Level 1 chests continue to be relevant until late in the game. Even when you have 10,000 hit points and are at Level 2,000, you're not going to turn down an easy boost to either of those variables.

In fact, there's a good argument to be made for staying on Level 1 for a long time. The other magic items that you hope to find have an equal chance of appearing on any square in any level (they can also be trapped, but there's a more-reliable cleric spell to determine that), so you might as well find them in a low-risk place. Level 1 has multiple exits, the shortest only five steps from the entrance. Spending about two hours simply entering, walking down this corridor, exiting, and repeating will probably gift you with most of the game's magic items and enough treasure chests to max your spell slots and put you over Level 100. That's enough to defeat any enemy in the game as long as you're not carrying treasure.
Finding a magic helm in a Level 1 corridor. Unfortunately, it's trapped.
But you can't stay there forever. The ultimate goal of the game is to find a dragon on Level 17-20, kill it, and get its Orb. (This dragon is the first "boss" monster in any computer RPG.) That means building your character to the point that he's capable of defeating the dragon and then getting out with the Orb. When you carry the Orb, you encounter enemies in the 7-8000s; you can drop it if you're overwhelmed. We don't have enough data to know the minimum level at which success is possible or the minimum level in which it is assured, but Nathan did it at Level 6,174, Ahab did it at Level 12,440 (curiously, Ahab's maximum hit points were a lot less than Nathan's), and I did it somewhere in between at Level 8,645.
This is the highest-level creature I faced in the game.
You're not going to get to those levels by opening chests on Level 1, at least not in a reasonable lifetime, so at some point you have to start exploring downwards. This is facilitated by an "Excelsior" transport on the first level that will drop you off anywhere between Levels 2 and 20 (for a small cost in hit points). There's no similar transport on the lower levels, so you have to find your way back up. There are no stairs in the game; instead there are "transporters" that move you to a random location on a higher or lower level. These transporters, confusingly, exist between squares, not within them, and some of them are uni-directional, meaning you might move from Square 2 to Square 1 and have nothing happen, but then get transported to the next level when moving back again.

Accurate maps at this point are crucial. You always want to know the fastest way to the next "up" transporter, including places where it might be better to use a "Passwall" spell, which costs one mage slot, rather than burn six mage slots on the monsters in between. But this whole experience is only risky as long as you're carrying gold (or if you started exploring down too fast). If you just drop your gold, enemies fall to a trivial level of difficulty for a Level 100+ player.
Retrieving gold from a stash.
You thus spend most of the game heading down to a low level, gathering millions of gold pieces, and then walking back to the entrance, occasionally dumping the gold if you collect too much too fast. When you get back to Level 2, if you still have magic slots to expend, you pass time right next to the exit so that you can attract enemies and end the expedition with as much experience as possible. (Late in the game, I discovered that a good way to grind levels was to stockpile gold on Level 2 so I could attract high-level monsters there, without having to go all the way down to the bottom of the dungeon.) You do this until you feel comfortable taking on the dragon. For me, that was over a dozen hours for the final character. Two characters that preceded him, I had above Level 3,000, but I got stupid and careless in my explorations and got them killed.

(On one character, I got careless with the command that lets you automatically fight creatures below a certain level, speeding up exploration time. This command is very dangerous. For 9/10 of the game, if you set it to about 1/10 of your current level, you'll be fine. Level 1 creatures are incapable of damaging you at all once you're Level 10. The same goes for Level 10 creatures once you're Level 100. The same is not true of Level 100 creatures when you're Level 1000. I didn't realize that all of those so-called "low-level" combats were actually sapping my hit points because the ratio had always held up before.)
Here I am, one step from the transporter to Level 1, burning the rest of my mage and cleric spell slots on random encounters.
Let's quickly cover the other items that you find in the dungeon, because they're important to understand how this game influenced the Daniel Lawrence DND line and perhaps even Rogue. As you explore, you can randomly encounter or find:
  • Potions, which are sometimes poison, but this can be determined with the expenditure of a cleric spell slot. Otherwise, they're almost always beneficial, sometimes healing, sometimes restoring spell slots, sometimes granting experience, levitation, or invisibility, sometimes increasing strength by a point. One special potion, Astral Form, lets you move up and down and through walls without costing any spell points, but you can't carry gold or the Orb, so it's rarely useful except for mapping.
  • Books. Reading them can increase or decrease an attribute or increase or decrease experience. They can also blow up in your face. The odds of a bad outcome seem about equal to those of a good outcome, maybe even more, and I found it was rarely worth the risk. The developers must have thought so, too, because they offered a command (SHIFT-B) to turn off book encounters; the same command doesn't exist for other types of encounters.
  • Magic Swords, Helmets, Armor, and Shields, and Rings of Protection, all of which let you come out of melee combats in better shape than without them. You find the first at +1, and from there subsequent findings increase the value up to +3.
Clerically examining a magic item and finding it "harmless" is one of the best things that can happen in this game.
  • Rings of Regeneration, which restore a hit point for every movement. This is useful early on, but less so later in the game when you have thousands of hit points.
  • Rings of Luck, which increase your chances of finding magic items.
  • Rings of Power, which add to spell power.
  • Elven Boots, which reduce random encounters.
  • Rings of Invisibility and Rings of Swiftness, both of which make it easier to flee random encounters.
  • Rings of Levitation, which lets you walk over pits. Not a huge deal if you've been mapping carefully. 
  • Magic Amulets, which give you a textual assessment of the likelihood of defeating any monster you encounter, including the dragon. The assessment is based only on physical combat, however, and thus considers only your hit points and level relative to the enemy's. It does not seem to consider use of spells. Amulets also alert you when you're adjacent to a transporter.
The amulet tells me "Farewell!" even though I'm almost certain to destroy him with a spell.
  • Magic Lanterns, which reveal secret doors. This treasure must be rare because only my last character found it (untrapped), and it was when he was within an hour of winning the game.
  • Bags of Holding, which increase the amount of gold you can carry. Without one, you can only carry 100,000 gold pieces per point of strength; with the bag, you can carry 100 times that many. This is naturally only an issue late in the game, by which point you've almost certainly found the bag.
Once found, magic items remain with you permanently except for one case: Sometimes when a monster is about to kill you, he'll offer to spare your life in exchange for all your magic items and all your gold. Obviously, careful planning avoids such situations. But it's still better than starting over.

It's also worth looking at the spells. Unlike The Dungeon, you have access to all of them at the outset, and all of them require a single spell slot. (The one exception is the non-combat "Teleport" spell, which moves you up a level for 2 mage slots and 1 cleric slot. It fails 10% of the time, so it's best not to rely on it.) Most of them are derived from Dungeons & Dragons and were featured in The Dungeon. (It's also worth noting, if only for later reference, that the command used in both games is "Throw Spell.") They include the mage spells "Fireball," "Lightning," "Flaming Arrow," "Sleep," and "Charm," and the cleric spells "Holy Water," "Exorcise," "Pray," and "Dispell."

Casting a spell against a wizard. "Lightning Bolt" almost always kills them, but it can ricochet and hit you, too.

A couple of them are oddly named, including mage spells called "Kitchen Sink" and "Eye of Newt" and a humorous clerical counterpart to "Dispell" called "Datspell." None of these spells are described, so you simply have to imagine how they're affecting the enemies.

As I mentioned earlier, the weaknesses and resistances of the seven enemies to these spells are so stark that they're almost deterministic. Ahab did an excellent job analyzing it on his site, including a few variables I'm glossing over. Each enemy has at least one mage spell and one cleric spell that works 100% of the time. This doesn't mean that it will necessarily kill the enemy, and if it doesn't, you have to follow up with a melee round. But it will kill an enemy of equal level (not counting modifiers based on equipment) about 100% of the time, and the enemy level, as above, is essentially a variable that you can control.
"Flaming Arrow" inevitably works on spectres, but they're immune to "Lightning Bolt."
On top of the 6 hours I spent on the game in 2012, it took me another 6 to internalize all the above. I burned 20 hours on two characters who ultimately died (and nearly gave up this whole enterprise), and another 12 on my final character. Once I crossed experience Level 8,000, I decided I was strong enough for the dragon plus all the enemies who attack you when you have the Orb. (The dragon moves around Levels 17-20 during the course of the game. If you encounter him before you're ready, you can evade with 100% success.) There's a spell that destroys the dragon, but it costs almost all of your spell slots and is thus not worth it. Like Nathan and Ahab before me, I depleted him with "Lightning Bolt" and finished him off in melee combat.
Just after I killed the dragon.
After that, I just had to make my way back to Level 1 and then the exit. My name finally appeared on the list of "Finders of the Orb," another element that we'll want to preserve in memory for later.

As I've mentioned before, it's silly to emphasize the GIMLET on these early games. I gave it a 15 when I first played it in 2012. Reviewing the categories now, I think I was too stingy on combat, equipment, and the economy, and I bumped each of those up a point for a new final score of 18.
Getting this screen was quite a relief.
I played version 5.4, which dates from 1977, after the Pelletts' influence. I haven't been able to find much information on version 1, but it apparently only had two magic items--a shield and sword. It also had so few character slots that the developers had to create an algorithm for prioritizing what active characters to purge to make room for new ones.

Version 6.0, dating from the same year, had mostly minor updates. Attributes govern more than they did in 5.4; for instance, intelligence and wisdom affect both starting and maximum magic-user and cleric spell slots, respectively. Additional monsters appear--including rust monsters, mind flayers, vampires, and balrogs--and many of them have special attacks and effects. There are also new magic items, including gauntlets, wands, and horns. There's a new option in combat to use some of these items. The most important difference is that gold adds directly to experience, which governs spell acquisition, leveling, and hit points; you no longer earn experience separately from gold.

There's no documentation on Version 7, but Version 8 (1978) has some significant changes. (Nathan has excellent coverage of Version 8, starting here. It took him a year of on-and-off playing to win.) First, there are three dungeons to choose from: the original Whisenwood, The Caverns, and the Tomb of Doom. The same character can bounce among them. At the top, there's a couple of shops. Whisenwood no longer has a main quest; it exists just for character development, plus a healing fountain at the bottom level that can raise attributes. The Caverns have the Orb and the dragon. The Tomb of Doom has the Grail, guarded by a vampire. Players have to find both the Orb and the Grail to enter the Hall of Fame--or simply achieve character level 1000. There are now four races--human, elf, dwarf, and gnome--to choose, as well as 20 Orders to join. Endurance appears as an attribute. Experience rewards and leveling are significantly scaled back. New monsters include Eyes of Thieving, which steal your stuff, and various types of slimes, which have all kinds of interesting effects. You can charm monsters to follow and fight for you. Robes, crosses, books, and lamps join the equipment list, and potion effects are expanded to include improvements to all attributes, Treasure Finding, Hallucination, and Fire Resistance. Each character begins with a random "inheritance," which is usually a magic item. We're only half a step from roguelikes at this point.

As we've seen in previous postings, The Game of Dungeons directly influenced Daniel Lawrence and his DND/Telengard line (no matter what Lawrence himself may have said), and from there a number of other descendants like Bill Knight's DND (1984) and Caverns of Zoarre (1984). There are also a couple of games that sprout directly from The Game without going through Lawrence, including Dungeon of Death (1979) and The Standing Stones (1983). I'd also suspect that version 8 influenced Rogue except that I can't find any evidence that Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman had any exposure to PLATO way out in California.

Tracing the elements of each game can help us determine the appropriate family tree, and to that end, we're indebted to a table that Ahab began in an attempt to track these elements. For instance, it's pretty absurd for Lawrence to say that he wasn't influenced by The Game when his original DND has an "Excelsior" transport and a list of winners titled "Finders of the Orb" (as well as the same basic gameplay, of course). Similarly, separate options to "open" and "carefully open" treasure chests help trace a line directly between The Game and Gordon Walton's Dungeon of Death.

Based on evidence so far, I'm pretty sure this is the correct family tree. But I'll edit as necessary. The one major problem is that the 1976/1977 "DND" is actually several versions on several platforms across several years.
Thanks to Nathan and Ahab prompting me to spend more time with The Game of Dungeons, I feel that I understand this early, seminal RPG a lot better. Later, we'll take a closer look at Daniel Lawrence's original DND and the debt it owes to The Game.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Black Crypt: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The box prominently featured the Ram Demon, the easiest of Estoroth's lieutenants.
Black Crypt
United States
Raven Software (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1992 for the Amiga
Date Started: 27 December 2018
Date Ended: 20 January 2019
Total Hours: 29
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 37
Ranking at Time of Posting: 243/316 (77%)

Black Crypt is a descendant of the Dungeon Master (1987) line. The player controls four characters of fixed classes (fighter, druid, cleric, and mage) on a quest to find four ancient artifacts necessary to defeat an ancient evil named Estoroth. Gameplay takes place across 28 levels of varying sizes, up to 40 x 40. Like its predecessors, it couples first-person, tile-based movement with fast-paced, real-time combat. Character development occurs by leveling and acquiring new spells and equipment, but (as with all games on the Dungeon Master tree) standard RPG considerations frequently take a back seat to a variety of mechanical puzzles involving buttons, switches, pressure plates, teleporters, and other navigational obstacles. Although fun, it breaks little new ground and thus offers few reasons to play it over the games that influenced it.


I should never underestimate my readers. I had resigned myself to putting together this final entry based on YouTube videos and had actually drafted a "Summary and Rating" without the "Won," but Zardas came through. He did a bit of surgery on my save disk and put together a save that worked out of non-corrupted parts of the disk.

Having found the four artifacts, I only had to solve a pressure plate puzzle on Level 13 to get access to the final levels, 27 and 28. The mechanical puzzles disappeared on those final levels, and they were small enough that I didn't bother to map them.

Level 27 had a couple of conflicting messages, one suggesting that Estoroth couldn't be damaged by magic, and one saying he could only be damaged with magic.
The "Reveal Truth" spell showed that the first message was the accurate one. Enemies on the two levels are completely immune to spells. That was a bit disappointing. I don't know what purpose it serves to render that aspect of character development meaningless on the final level. 

On Level 27, I had to defeat six skeletal guardians. Their magic attack was too powerful for my party to withstand more than two blasts, so I had to waltz them to death. (For new readers, the "combat waltz" is a maneuver by which you attack then quickly side-step and turn before the enemy can retaliate.) I can't see how it would be possible to beat them otherwise. All the videos I consulted online showed the players doing exactly that. I suppose I could have used two Potions of Invincibility on my front characters, but I was saving those for Estoroth.
These guys were so hard I couldn't stop for a screenshot without dying.
I can't remember if I mentioned in a previous entry that waltzing is a little harder in Black Crypt than other Dungeon Master clones, largely because the enemies don't follow a predictable pattern. You can't side-step until the enemy has already committed to turning and facing you; otherwise, he could easily go the other direction. For some players, this would mean simply adjusting their fingers and switching the direction of the waltz. For someone less manually dexterous like me, it means flailing randomly at the keys and, in a best-case scenario--running to the other side of the dungeon so I can catch my breath, settle down, and figure out a new pattern.

Once the guardians were defeated, I armed myself with the four artifacts and took a stairway down to Estoroth himself. At this point, I naturally forgot to use my Potions of Invincibility, but Estoroth was curiously easy. After I'd hit him just a few times with my melee weapons, the weapons began to sparkle. This was a sign to use their special attacks. It took a few tries to get the order right. Protector (the shield) protects the party from further damage; Soulfreezer (the staff) holds Estoroth in place; Vortex (the sword) opens a portal to another dimension; and Forcehammer (the hammer) sends him through.
Sending Estoroth to hell.
The endgame text is first a short paragraph:
What made this banishment of Estoroth successful permanently?
But afterwards, the player gets a scene-by-scene recap (about 15 scenes total) of the major game moments, including the various "boss" creatures defeated along the way: the Ogre, the Dracolich, the Medusa, the Possessor, the Ram Demon, and the Waterlord.
In case we had forgotten.
After one final concluding paragraph . . .
The final screen shows the Black Crypt destroyed.
 . . . the party has the option to reload the final save and just poke around the dungeon. There really isn't anything to do, but you can find the four ancient heroes' skulls on Level 28, plus a few high-powered items.

I had a reasonable amount of fun with Black Crypt. It's a clone, but there's nothing inherently wrong with clones. Without them, we'd have about a dozen total RPGs, and half of those would be weird one-off French titles. Clones allow you to get started without any confusion, let you settle in to familiar territory with a contented sigh. And despite the term, no "clone" is a 100% likeness. It's fun to see the different variations the developers take with a common template, like listening to a new jazz band improvise on a number you've heard a million times. Even when it's worse, it can still be interesting.

But Dungeon Master-style games face a unique challenge when it comes to this improvisation, because they're mostly about mechanics. They tend to feature framing stories--that is, stories that have few references in the game itself, and could easily be swapped with a different frame--and no NPCs. With an Ultima clone, even if the game plays the same as Ultima III or IV, you can still enjoy the new story and the variety of NPCs. Lacking such narrative options, a Dungeon Master clone has to rest all its improvisation on combat, exploration, and puzzles. That's where Black Crypt falls a little short.
Just like Dungeon Master, all I can tell about a weapon by looking at it is its weight. At least the door image is cool.
Only in its somewhat extensive ending does Black Crypt really distinguish itself from its predecessors. Oh, its graphics and sound are marginally better, but these are the things that an RPG fan--particularly a Dungeon Master fan--ought to care about least. Some of its puzzles also went in different directions, but rarely to the game's credit. More often than in Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, I found it difficult to judge the results of various actions. I particularly didn't like the invisible pressure plates. There's little point to mechanical puzzles if you can't see the elements that make up the puzzle. 

Meanwhile, Black Crypt fixed none of the problems that I had with Dungeon Master--inability to see equipment statistics and a needless food system among them. Even worse, it went in Eye of the Beholder's direction with character development, while offering none of Beholder's improvements, such as NPCs and side quests. The magic system is done a bit differently here, although in the end I found it neither better or worse than its predecessors. For all of these reasons, I expect it to GIMLET lower than Dungeon Master or Beholder.

1. Game World. As usual, we have more of a framing story than a backstory--a fact not changed by a few call-outs within the game (mostly in the form of messages from Estoroth that you find). The plot is derivative, and like most Dungeon Master clones, there isn't much of a "world" here. But the levels are well-designed, with both textures and puzzles organized around themes specific to individual levels or small groups of levels. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. As noted, it takes a fairly major step back. You have to play four fixed classes. There are no significant choices during creation except for the portrait. Because the dungeon is linear and the number of enemies is mostly fixed, characters level at fixed intervals, and leveling doesn't really do very much for them. I vastly prefer Dungeon Master's action-based leveling, in which each character can attain various levels in all "classes," to Crypt's (and Beholder's) experience-based leveling. Score: 3.
Using single classes and experience-based leveling was a regression.
3. NPC Interaction. There are no NPCs in the game. Score: 0.

4. Encounters and Foes. There are about as many different enemies as the typical game of this genre, with about as much variety in strengths, resistances, and special attacks. Most of the monster types and portraits are original to this game (or at least not taken directly from its sources). I just wish they had names. As is my custom, I'll also use this category to throw in a couple of points for the puzzles, which serve in the place of role-playing "encounters" in this sub-genre. As above, I didn't always like them, but they were pitched at the right difficulty. Score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat. I'll never love combat that relies more on manual dexterity than attributes and tactics. Dungeon Master at least provided a variety of different types of attacks with its weapons, plus hand-to-hand combat, plus a more useful in-combat spells system, plus the ability to attack from the inventory screen, plus other useful tricks, like the ability to swing around and use the two rear characters to attack the rear. Black Crypt's only innovations are to make waltzing (and similar patterns) more difficult and to introduce a different take on the spell system. Its lack of buffing spells is also a negative. Still, it offers an arguably better experience than Eye of the Beholder, where you never got feedback on attacks, and waltzing made it possible to win with a single character. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. I liked the variety of equipment slots but almost nothing else. Looking at items offers less information than even Dungeon Master. I guess I'll give a point for some originality with the "false" messages and the ability to right-click on most weapons for a special attack. Score: 5.
As with most RPGs, I ended this one with plenty of unused equipment.
7. Economy. As usual for a Dungeon Master clone, none. Score: 0.

8. Quests. The main quest has some fun stages, with various boss creatures every two or three levels. It also offers a little nonlinearity in the order you approach Estoroth's lieutenants, but it otherwise has no choices, no alternate endings, and no role-playing. In this it under-performs its predecessors. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Some improvements here. The game is still a bit too mouse-heavy for my tastes, but at least you can customize the movement keys. I feel like there were a few more sound effects and slightly better graphics than Dungeon Master, at least, but perhaps not enough to make a difference in the score. The auto-mapping system is a nice addition, and I like how it's logically integrated with the spell system (even if it took me a while to figure out). Amiga-philes will want me to note that the game uses an enhanced graphics mode ("extra half-bright") that allows for 64 colors instead of the usual 32, but even the original 32 colors is about 24 more than I can discern. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. It's as linear as most dungeon crawlers, but at least offers some flexibility after Level 13. Unfortunately, the fixed character classes make it less replayable than its counterparts. Otherwise, difficulty and length were both good. Score: 5.

That gives us a final score of 37, just north of my "recommended" threshold, but below the 41 I gave to Eye of the Beholder and the 47 I gave to Dungeon Master. (I must say, reviewing my Dungeon Master scores, I was a bit generous in several categories and I think it would likely rate closer to a 43 if I rated it now. I didn't have a lot of perspective during my first year.) Fans of this subgenre would argue (not entirely without a point) that perhaps it shouldn't be faulted for lacking NPCs, a dynamic game world, and an economy, since that's not what this subgenre is about. If it thus makes you feel better, you can think of it as rating closer to a 44 (and Dungeon Master closer to a 58) with those categories eliminated and the rest of the values rescaled accordingly.
As an Amiga game, Black Crypt was heavily promoted in Europe.
Computer Gaming World offered a "sneak preview" of the game in the February 1992 issue, but it never seems to have offered a review. The preview, written by Allen Greenberg, is extremely positive. Nothing he says is wrong, exactly, but he suggests that the game is better than Dungeon Master, and I find it difficult to imagine any fan of this subgenre agreeing with that. In particular, he seems too infatuated with fairly modest improvements in graphics and sound. Greenberg sets up the review by suggesting there's a war brewing between keyboarders and mousers, so I'm at least glad to see that the interface issue was heavily debated in the day. Amiga-specific magazines tended towards high scores, with .info coming in at a perfect 100 and Amiga Action giving it 93/100. Non-English Amiga magazines were, as usual, a bit more conservative, with scores in the 71-90 range.

Black Crypt was the first title from Wisconsin-based Raven Software, which still exists as a subdivision of Activision (it was sold in 1997) and is currently in charge of the Call of Duty series. The company's co founders, Brian and Steve Raffel, reportedly began outlining the game in the 1980s. They enlisted two programmers, Rick Johnson, and Ben Gokey, and had a demo ready for the 1990 Gen Con, where it was picked up for distribution by Electronic Arts. (I had originally thought that Crypt owed its lineage to Dungeon Master via Eye of the Beholder, but the game would have been mostly finished when Beholder came out.) It was the first game for almost everyone on the team.

An Amiga-only game in 1992 was bound to make a small splash in the United States, which probably explains why the company abandoned the platform for future titles. At the same time, they also mostly abandoned RPGs in favor of first-person shooters, some with light RPG elements. Whether we ever see them again on this blog depends how I rule on games like ShadowCaster (1993), Heretic (1994), Hexen (1995), Mageslayer (1997), and Hexen II (1997), all of which are on my list preliminarily. Today, the company is better known for its Soldier of Fortune (2000-2003) and Call of Duty (2010-2017) titles as well as its work on later entries in id Software's franchises including Quake 4 (2005) and Wolfenstein (2009).

Any RPG fan is going to want to read Jimmy Maher's survey of Dungeon Master descendants, published a few weeks ago. Based on his review, we only have four left (at least until a more recent surge of "retro" games): Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos (1993), Dungeon Master II: Skullkeep (1993), Eye of the Beholder III (1993), and Stonekeep (1995). (And maybe Liberation: Captive II [1994]? I'm not sure if it uses the same engine and approach as Captive.) It doesn't sound like any of them are likely to outperform the original. It's too bad that this subgenre never reached a true peak before it was subsumed by real-time movement in the vein of Ultima Underworld (1992), but given its forthcoming demise, I'm not sorry that it had one decent 1992 entry.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Lords of Bedtime

The game requires sleep but at least offers several types of locations where you can sleep.
This entry represents an accomplishment that many people wouldn't see as much of an accomplishment. I'm writing it on 18 January and scheduling it to post on 22 January, which means that I've managed to keep my blog on schedule for the entire duration of my two-week Caribbean cruise. This hasn't been easy, what with inadequate Internet access most of the time, lack of a second monitor, uncomfortable places to work and play, and of course Irene constantly urging me to "do" something other than sit on the balcony with my laptop. On the positive side, I've been able to visit, for the first time, many of the very forts that I sacked in Pirates! 

I may have conveyed this in previous postings, but I'm a total wuss when it comes to international traveling, despite (or, perhaps, because of) how much of it I do. I get annoyed swiftly with the lack of my usual comforts. For instance, when I'm in the United States, and before 17:00, it's a rare moment that I don't have a cold bottle of Diet Coke within reach--a bottle, mind you, not a can. In the U.S., I depend on the excessive availability of vending machines and convenience stores, many open 24 hours, to supply this need. I find that such stores don't exist, or are not convenient, or are not always open, when abroad. I don't understand this fad for "body wash" that European hotels seem to have embraced, but I use bar soap, thank you. I don't pack carefully, and I need an iron and ironing board each day.
I'm going to be rambling for a while, so here's a shot of my character being chased by a dwarf on Wyvern Mountain.
I have a friend named Eli who will happily grab a backpack, fly to a place like Indonesia with $50 in his pocket, and somehow have a great week. I absolutely cannot do that. I haven't not showered in the morning since I was 9. I don't wear clothes two days in a row. I don't sleep in communal rooms or on other people's couches. I'd rather pay for a hotel room for the night and use it for 20 minutes than use a public toilet. These types of frailties are a bit limiting when traveling. If I get too far afield, I start to worry where I'm going to find my next drink, pillow, and clean restroom. (It really says something that on a cruise, when you're only in port for one day and you know exactly where you'll be sleeping that night, I spent half the time on each island anxiously looking around and saying, "Doesn't this place have any 7-Elevens?") Sometimes I wish I could be more like Eli, who will get off a boat and stalk off towards the nearest mountain range, not worrying how, when, or in what condition he'll return.

By way of tortured segue, those needs are somewhat mirrored in Lords of Time and its predecessor, Faery Tale Adventure. The need for food and sleep put a functional limit on how long you can adventure and how far afield you can go. If you don't find a bed every 24 hours, your magic points drain away, and then your hit points. (Faery Tale Adventure would just have you collapse on the ground if you got too tired, but given the frequency with which monsters spawn, that would be a death sentence here.) A similar fate befalls you if you fail to eat a couple of meals a day.
I think if I found myself in a medieval world, I'd be grateful enough for inns with beds.
I can't say that I find the need for food and sleep particularly desirable aspects of an RPG, but if it's going to be done, I guess I'd prefer the way it's done here. First, it's somewhat "realistic" in both the availability of these resources and the time intervals that you need them. Second, they provide a logistical challenge, but it's one that's more of timing than one of supply. By this, I mean that beds are plentiful if you know where to look (inns, private homes, occasional "resting stations"), and food is cheap at stores and free if you can find an apple tree. This isn't like Ultima II where (until you learn how to shoplift) you're constantly killing creatures just to be able to afford food, and it's not like Rogue, where the hunger system punishes you for taking your time. It's more--and this similarity would have occurred to me no matter how I began this entry--like Pirates!, where you leave one port with not just a destination in mind, but a route that will ensure you maintain your supplies. In a modern game, I think Fallout 4 in survival mode also does this very well: food and sleep aren't so rare and precious that they dominate gameplay, but neither are they so inconsequential that you wonder why the developers introduced the dynamic in the first place.

That's a positive aspect of Lords of Time. Let's talk about a negative: open exploration is basically ruined by the relentless spawning of monsters. It's brutal. If you leave the game unattended for 15 seconds without pausing, you'll be dead when you next look at the screen. When I decide I need to go to a particular place, I'm not so much walking in that direction as constantly fleeing monsters in that direction. "Fleeing" because even at this point in the game, with over 100 maximum hit points, training in both basic intermediate swordplay, enhanced statistics, plate mail armor, a broadsword, and a healing spell, I still can't win more than five or six consecutive battles before my hit points get so low I have to recharge. The game will gladly hand you five or six consecutive battles in about 30 seconds if you're not always on the move.
Walking along water makes it easier to see enemies approach--and avoid them.
Meanwhile, the interiors of the game make it very difficult to run away from monsters. Negotiating thick clusters of trees and bushes is nearly impossible, although the monsters get through them with unerring pathfinding. Thus, I've learned to follow coastal and river routes to most destinations. When I have to fight, doing so while wading in water makes it easier to control my position relative to the enemies. It's harder when foliage is constantly blocking your view.

You may recall that shortly after my character's arrival in The Realm, he was summoned to meet with the king, who I later learned is named Tanor. The king said to get home, I'd need help from one of two archwizards, Bessak or Kruel, and that of the two, Bessak was most likely to help. I found Bessak's keep in the middle of the Dark Forest, but I couldn't open the door. I suspected that a woman in Murkvale had the key to the keep around her neck.

Commenters helped me with the solution: to buy an orange sleeping potion in Murkvale, dump it in a mug of ale, and offer it to the woman. I wasn't prepared for this level of complexity in inventory interactions or this type of adventure-style puzzle, so I appreciate the hints. I was more alert for such possibilities in later gameplay.
Hey, it's a medieval society.
When she was asleep, I was able to take the key, and it did turn out to offer me an entrance to Bessak's keep. Like most locations in the game, it was large but mostly empty. Bessak himself was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found a journal in which he noted that "Kruel has pushed me too far," and that he intended to destroy Kruel "with the help of the Druids and their Spell of Annulment."
I think the second "throne" belonged to the woman in the bar. I wonder why she thinks Bessak is dead.
The Druid Temple is a short walk from Bessak's keep. I had previously visited but couldn't figure out how to get in. This time, I tried harder and found a maze around back. It took a while to navigate it, but when I emerged, I was in the interior of the temple.
I should draw this so I don't have to figure it out by trial-and-error every time.
The multi-columned temple was quite large but mostly empty. The only thing I found was a set of stairs leading up to a kind of altar with four braziers in the corners. The altar seemed to block a staircase going downwards.

I had an idea of what to do from a book in the Castleguard library, which said that four plants are sacred to the Druids: mountain shrub, willow, maple, and spruce. Assuming I'd have to do something with them at some point, I had spent some time walking up to each of these trees and choosing "pick a small branch from the tree" from the contextual menu. (I ended up with a lot of spruce because it has several appearances; the other three trees only have one each. Mountain shrub is particularly rare.) Thus, when I arrived at the Temple, I already had one sprig of each. I put one in each brazier, and the game told me that the braziers began burning the twigs.

Unfortunately, nothing happened. I tried different configurations of plant to brazier but still nothing happened. Thinking that timing might be important, I tried it at different times of day (including midnight, which becomes important below), still to no avail.
None of this worked.
Stuck again, I began exploring and re-exploring the map, looking for more adventures and hints. Among my discoveries and accomplishments:
  • At an armor shop, I decided "what the hell" and gave it a try and managed to shoplift a full set of plate mail on my first attempt and a two-handed sword on my second attempt. Unfortunately, I failed the next three attempts for much less valuable stuff, and I got sick of reloading, so my shoplifting career came to an end.
  • There are several caverns on Wyvern Mountain. None of them were occupied by wyverns, but some of them had wyvern nests and, within them, wyvern eggs. Shortly after grabbing a couple of those eggs, I started getting dive-bombed by flying creatures that toss rocks at me from above. I assume these are wyverns, and that their appearance was triggered by my pilfering.
This was perhaps a bad idea.
  • One of the caves on "Wyvern" Mountain led to a dragon. He awoke and killed me with one breath. I assume I'll have to deal with him later, and I wonder if it will involve the "Dragonsbane" plant I've been finding on some mountains.
This is a reasonably well-drawn dragon.
  • I made it to the hall of the "Dwarven High King" on the northwest part of the map, but a guard wouldn't let me in.
I assume I'll be back later.
  • I also found "Lord Dervak's Holde" but couldn't get through the front door.
  • In the Dwarven Mines, as a commenter pointed out, pick-axes will remove embedded jewels. These sell for about 25 gold pieces.
The dwarves still won't talk with me, even though I learned their language.
Throughout these adventures, my character development has been steady, in several ways. First, you "level" behind the scenes at experience point thresholds, increasing your maximum health and spell points, and occasionally increasing an attribute or two.

Second, I was able to take most of the courses offered at the guilds in Murkvale and Castleguard. Some of them have experience point requirements that are still beyond me, but over these six hours, and between the two locations, I got "Intermediate Lockpicking" (I had taken basic last time), "Intermediate Spellcasting,"  "Potion Identification," "Shoplifting," "Personal Money Management," "Weather Control," "Traps," "Dwarven Language," "Dealing with Stress," and "Fighting Dragons." I think some of the courses were valuable for hidden attributes that they improve, but others were valuable mostly for the information conveyed right on the screen.
Others . . . I'm not sure what use they were.
I had been picking up spells called "Ability Enhancement," but I wasn't capable of casting them until I got "Intermediate Spellcasting" and at least 100 spell points. I chose to enhance strength with all three iterations of the spell, because I had been sick of messages that said I wasn't strong enough to wield various weapons. Thanks to the spells, I was able to finally wield the broadsword that I stole. I'm still too weak for the two-handed sword. It must be said, though, that I haven't noticed either sword or armor upgrades making combat particularly easier.
"Enhancing your attributes" sounds less creepy in an RPG than in real life.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • The Riverside Inn lies south of Castleguard and is "fortified for your protection" with a wall around it. That's a bit of a hoot since enemies spawn without any problem inside walls.
  • There are wells in a lot of places, but most of them just seem to make you sick. If you find one with good water, you can fill canteens, but since water isn't a requirement (unlike food), I'm not sure what use this is.
  • Spiders poisoning me are still an automatic reload. This far into the game, I don't have a "cure poison" spell.
  • "Fistak's Magical Mapping Spell," which I picked up somewhere, makes a little mini-map of the environment. This makes it much easier to find buildings and other important areas.
A map shows the location of nearby rivers and mountains.
  • Some kind of sea dragon started appearing as an enemy, but they're limited to bodies of water and wander off if the character is on land.
  • From entering Bessak's, my "score" went up to 10/190.
  • Given the number of times I've needed to enter the castle, I'm getting sick of guards challenging me every single time.
Oh, come on! I just want to sleep.
In all my explorations, I had trouble finding any hints about the next steps--until I decided to systematically tip bartenders. As an old Ultima player, I should have realized this would be important. Bartenders offer different hints at different tip thresholds, and I had only been getting the lowest tier. 

From them, and a couple of NPCs, I learned that Kruel used to be Bessak's protege, and that Bessak has long sought the Druid Book of Life. (I assume if I ever meet him, that will be some kind of sub-quest.) The bartender in Murkvale told me that an old wizardess in the Great Swamp knows something about the Druid Temple.

The Great Swamp wasn't on the game map, but I figured it might have something to do with the archipelago at the river delta southeast of Murkvale, and I was right. In fact, there was a whole community in those islands that I'd overlooked, including another potion shop and a second library.
Information from the second library. I wonder if everyone in The Realm crashed test planes.
The wizardess in question gave me a little verse:

When the moon is blue
And four twigs on four altars lie
Admittance will be gained by you
Under the midnight sky
Reminder: poetry is about meter as much as rhyme.
This agreed with what the bartender had told me (in another tip) about the Druids "all excited over an upcoming set of blue moons." This is great except I have no idea how to tell when the moon is blue. Nothing in the game tells me anything about the status of the moon. (I don't know; does the symbol above the health meter have something to do with the moon? If so, it always looks blue to me.) I don't even know if the term refers to the color of the moon or the second appearance of the full moon within a month.

I don't want to have to keep showing up at the temple (and navigating that damned maze) every night until the right night comes along, especially since a nighttime expedition takes some planning. You have to try to sleep into the afternoon so you don't get tired after dusk, and thus run out of steam completely before morning. I'll be glad for hints, but barring that, my plan is to revisit the spell stores and make sure there isn't something magical that's supposed to tell me the moon's status.