Saturday, January 16, 2021

Game 395: Danger in Drindisti (1982)

As a Hellfire Warrior expansion, this game has no title screen of its own.
        
Danger in Drindisti
United States
Automated Simulations (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Apple II, Atari 800, and TRS-80
Date Started: 10 June 2019
Date Ended: 15 January 2021
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5) for a default character, but the user can adjust
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai (1979) was not technically the first commercial CRPG, but it was the first fully-featured commercial CRPG. It was the first game--and until 1981, the only game--that mimicked the experience of exploring a dungeon in a tabletop RPG. It offered a full set of attributes, a full set of equipment, classic Dungeons and Dragons-style monsters, and even textual paragraphs describing rooms and treasures, as if a dungeon master were reading them to you.
   
If Automated Simulations (later Epyx) had continued to develop this system, the Dunjonquest line would be better-remembered and better-regarded today. Instead, the company took what was arguably the best IP in CRPG-dom and spent the next six years handicapping it, churning out expansions that didn't make full use of the original engine, "MicroQuests" that had no character creation or inventory, and other bastardizations. Gateway to Apshai (1983), which couldn't even spell its own name correctly on the title screen, was both the end of the series and its lowest point. If the company had spent those years on sequels, improving the engine, rather than simplistic expansions, it could have eclipsed Wizardry and Ultima
     
Everything in this room has manual annotations, including the room, the monster, and the treasure.
      
Danger in Drindisti is the last release before Gateway, and while it's one of the more memorable expansions, it's still just an expansion, limited by the need for the original game disks. The lineage is difficult to follow, but Drindisti is an expansion to Hellfire Warrior (1980), which itself was an expansion to The Temple of Apshai (1979). Apshai offered levels 1-4; Hellfire Warrior added 5-8. Drindisti keeps Hellfire's Level 5 as the base level (it requires the Hellfire disk to boot) but replaces the rest of Hellfire's levels with new levels 6, 7, and 8, and then adds a Level 9. Essentially, the expansion fools the Hellfire program into thinking that its levels are the ones that originally came with Hellfire, but this means that they have some unfortunate limitations. Since Hellfire didn't use room descriptions on odd levels, neither can Drindisti. The developers recommend that you play the game in level order 7-6-9-8, presumably because they wanted to use room descriptions on the "first" and "third" levels but were constrained by the original program.

There are similar limitations with the treasures you can find. Their nature is hard-coded into the level design, so if Level 8, Treasure #7 was a random bunch of arrows in Hellfire Warrior, it's a random bunch of arrows in Drindisti, too. Level 7, Treasure 16 is a magic sword in both games.
    
The third problem is one that plagued both Hellfire Warrior and its original expansion, The Keys of Acheron (1981): the engine has no sense of a "winning condition." As far as it's concerned, once you leave the level and return to the safety of town, you're back in the original Apshai lobby, and there was no way to win Apshai, just improve and amass wealth. The level disks are incapable of any programming complexity not on the original boot disk, so they can't throw you a party. You know you've won if you've achieved the victory conditions set out in the manual--the slaying of a particular enemy, or the retrieval of a particular treasure, or both--but the game makes no acknowledgement of it. 
   
The end-of-level treasure report shows I have Treasure #14, which is the only acknowledgement I get that I've won.
      
The backstory this time is relatively simple: the kingdom of Drindisti has lately been plagued with bandits, dragons, and other ills. The Wizard King of Drindisti, Yoturni, has made a list of four traditional enemies of the kingdom, one of whom is probably behind the attack. You are the most powerful warrior in the kingdom, tasked with slaying each of the four enemies.

As with Hellfire Warrior and The Keys of Acheron, you create your character on the Hellfire disk. You can accept a default character, load a character from a previous session, or create your own from scratch. As usual, this last option invites all kinds of abuse. Nothing stops you from creating a character with all-18 attributes, a magical sword +9, magical armor, 99 healing elixirs, and so forth, thus trivializing what is a reasonably high difficulty for a default character. On the other hand, you'd be cheating yourself out of the joy of treasure hunting. Most of the character development is through finding treasure. You can use it to pay for enchantments to your sword and armor, elixirs, arrows, and magic arrows. A mage also has a random selection of items to sell you before each expedition (including "Seven-League Boots" occasionally), and you can also stop by the apothecary to buy potions that will last the duration of your journey and boost your abilities. 
        
Creating a modest new character.
            
Beyond treasure, I'm not sure if there's any real character development. The character file tracks an "experience" statistic, but the game manual is cagey about what it actually does. It explicitly does not increase your attributes or your hit points, which are always expressed as a percentage anyway. [Ed. I was wrong. It does improve your attributes. You get a bonus point at 2,000 experience points and every doubling from there. It allocates them in a way that favors constitution and strength. See the discussion for more.]
   
Actually playing the game uses mechanics that will be familiar to you if you've read my entries on any of the previous Dunjonquest titles (except Gateway, a console game with a very different interface). Movement is by turning R)ight, L)eft, or V)olte Face and then moving forward 1-9 steps. When you see an enemy, you can F)ire a regular arrow or a M)agic arrow if he's in your line of fire; otherwise, you can get into melee range and use A)ttack, T)hrust, or P)arry. Exploration commands include S)earching for traps, E)xamining walls for secret doors, O)pening those doors, and taking a H)ealing salve. In addition to health, you have a fatigue meter that depletes with movement and combat actions, more with higher encumbrance. (It's almost never useful to carry around very heavy treasures.) Fatigue replenishes by standing still, but that also invites enemies to spawn in your room.
   
Enemies are fairly relentless in this title--it's meant to be a game for advanced adventurers. The engine is only capable of showing one enemy on the screen at a time, but you'll frequently enter a room with a spider, kill it, and immediately get another one. This might go on for 10 or 12 of the beasts before the room finally clears, but even then a random enemy could spawn within seconds. 
        
"And another appears" is a frequent and annoying message.
    
Mapping the levels is essential if you want to win, or even if you just want to find your way to an exit. Fortunately, the game helps with room numbers. You have to be vigilant, because these can change halfway through a large room or long corridor. On Levels 7 and 9, these numbers correspond with room descriptions given in the manual. The descriptions aren't just flavor; they often offer clues about enemies, the presence of secret doors, and the nature of the room's treasures. Here are some examples:
       
Level 7, Room 36: A large, open chamber where the wizard's apprentices amuse themselves in their off hours. In the northwest corner of the room is a beautiful glass fountain spouting green tinted water.

Level 7, Room 40: On the west wall of this otherwise bare room rests a chalkboard, with a total of 24 names written on it. Some of the names are marked with an "X," others with an "O," while others are marked with a [slash]. The floor of the room is covered with a trace amount of chalk.

Level 9, Room 25: A small chapel. Against the western wall is a huge idol of the Demonmaster straddling a small altar. On top of the altar is a small silver statue, also of the Demonmaster. In the eastern half of the chapel is a cloak rack which seems out of place.
         
My map of the rooms and treasures on the Glass Wizard's level.
      
In addition to the room descriptions, all four of the levels have treasure descriptions. When you pick up an item with the treasure symbol, you get its number and can reference the book to see what you found. Some of the treasures are junk ("A glass bowl filled with bits of broken glass"); others are extremely valuable and converted to money when you leave the dungeon ("a small pouch containing a handful of small but no doubt valuable diamonds"). Occasionally, one of the "treasures" turns out to be something that causes an event in the game, like a healing fountain, and you might also find something you can equip and use, like an enchanted sword. Finally, as in The Keys of Acheron, the developers often use treasure descriptions to give you quasi-encounters and hints. For instance, "treasure" # T01 on Level 8 reads:
       
The Sage tells you that the Demigod's altar can be found by walking through the stone archway to the west of his hut and entering the Hall of Pillars. The Sage advises you to be very careful in the Hall of Pillars, because there are monsters hiding around every corner. Once you pass through the Hall of Pillars, you should take a left turn and continue in that direction. Eventually, you will reach the altar.
             
If you go in the manual's suggested order, the first enemy you'll deal with is the Glass Wizard on Level 7. He lives in a cave structured as a giant maze, full of his apprentices and a bunch of monsters whose names all begin with "glass" (e.g., glass lizard, glass spider, glass birds). Distressingly, you have to kill a number of "pet dogs." A lot of the treasures are statues--remains of previous victims of the wizard. They're all too heavy to bother carrying. The goal is to make your way through the maze, find the Glass Wizard's chambers, kill him, and grab the treasure that contains his spell book, which he stole from Yoturni. If you kill the wizard and escape the dungeon with Treasure #14, you have satisfied these conditions.
    
Confronting the Wizard.
        
Level 6 is the home of the Illusionist. The level is a wonky one with numerous secret and illusory doors, rooms that wrap back on themselves, and other such navigation puzzles. While you're exploring, you get attacked by demons, giant snakes, and "winged horrors." The goal is to find and kill the Illusionist and then retrieve his wooden staff. Unfortunately, there are four staffs to find (Treasures #1-4), and you don't know which is the real one, so you have to find all of them to have met the winning condition.
     
The Illusionist attacks in a secret room.
         
Level 9 takes you to "The Temple of the Demonmaster." This scenario is particularly well-constructed and written. The citadel is a sensible shape and size in the middle of the map. You can't do much with this game's graphics, but the creators gave it a relevant layout, with a large entry hall leading to smaller work areas and bedrooms. A public area accessible by lesser clerics has murals that tell the story of the Demonmaster (these are told via room descriptions). They depict him taking over the land before an alliance of men and dragons defeated him, but he rose from his defeat and began his conquests anew. However, a secret set of murals in the High Priest's private chambers show that the Demonmaster was, in fact, defeated, and the High Priest has been using his legacy as a front for his own activities. You've "won" the scenario if you defeat the High Priest; there's no special treasure to retrieve. A creature called the "Idol" in this setting is one of the toughest in the Dunjonquest series.
       
This shot lets you know that I at least encountered the High Priest. I suppose there's no way to prove I defeated him.
       
Finally, Level 8 is the "Realm of Mist," described in the manual as a "dark and dank place." It is composed of mostly-blank screens, some of which wrap around on themselves. A few of the treasure descriptions are re-purposed as hints from the Sage about how to get to the demi-god's altar and where to find an Amulet of Protection that you need there.
   
A non-hostile "sage" awaits next to his "treasure"--a hint about where to go next.
        
You have to cut your way through phantoms, mist monsters, and guardian beasts to find your way to the demi-god's altar. Once there, the manual says to summon him by "praying to him (use the '0' command)." Apparently, this process causes his minions to spawn first, and then eventually the demi-god. What's really happening is that '0' moves you forward 0 spaces and thus counts as passing a turn. They must have set the demi-god to appear after a certain number of passed turns.
 
The hardest creature in Dunjonquest appears on his altar.
         
I thought that Drindisti's levels were the most challenging of the series, but the Hellfire Warrior sub-series in general has been more hardcore than the original Apshai game and its own sub-series. The worst danger I found was simply becoming lost and ultimately getting into a spiral where enemies spawned faster than my ability to rest and restore fatigue. I ultimately won each scenario, but only with a combination of save states and being a bit generous in character creation. With more time, I could see having a lot of fun really building the character, visiting each level multiple times before ultimately conquering them.
      
Even if you die, there's a chance that the character isn't gone.
      
Jon Freeman, who had left Automated Simulations by the time of Drindisti, is generally credited as the mind behind the Dunjonquest series. But Acheron had kicked things up a notch in narrative quality, an improvement undoubtedly owed to Paul Reiche III, later of Star Control fame, who had recently left TSR after writing tabletop Dungeons and Dragons modules. For Drindisti, Automated Simulations also got an experienced tabletop designer: Rudy Kraft III, co-designer of RuneQuest. This is the only involvement with Kraft on a computer RPG that I can find.
    
I'm going to do something incredibly lazy and simply assign the same score to Drindisti that I gave to Acheron, which was a 24. I don't see anything fundamentally different about them. They both make the best use they can of a somewhat limited engine. The levels are challenging and the documentation is high-quality.
    
This is, alas, the end of our explorations with the Dunjonquest series. Three years after its first release, its limitations were beginning to show, and improvements to the interface and graphics in the repackaged Temple of Apshai Trilogy (1985) didn't turn things around. Having presumably also not made a bundle with their re-issuing of the Crystalware catalogue in 1981 and 1982, the re-branded Epyx made a sharp turn away from RPGs in the coming years, focusing instead on racing and sports titles. Rare exceptions are the 1985 commercial version of Rogue and publishing Charles Dougherty's Legend of Blacksilver (1988).
     
The series deserves a lot of credit for what it accomplished: the first use of expansions, excellent production qualities, a sincere desire to bring emergent tabletop gameplay to the computer, and admirable dedication to porting the games to as many relevant systems as possible. Links to my review of the full series are below.

*****

Danger in Drindisti (1982)

21 comments:

  1. I still love these additions in the early era... probably because I am old and remember Apshai and the like from my earliest days!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wonder if the developers genuinely thought they were gaining something by creating "expansions," or if it was only a ploy to sell more disks. It seems like it only limits the games (reusing treasures, weird level order, etc.) rather than significantly adding to the base.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Possibly expansions are cheaper, easier, and/or faster to make than a completely new game.

      Delete
    2. Disks were expensive back in the day. Not having to have the main game code on the disks you were distributing probably cut storage space (and thus material distribution costs) in half.

      Delete
  3. I remember playing the earlier entries in this series on my TRS-80 Model I. The games made the most of the 16K of RAM and cassette storage. I suspect they couldn’t have gone much further on that platform, but agree it’s a shame the company didn’t try to innovate more on the more powerful PCs.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I always find games / books / whatever with "Danger" in it very unengaging.

    "Danger" for me is that the road is slippery, some gravel may fall from the mountain, deers may cross the street. I mean, I would not send anyone except level 1 adventurers to solve such a situation.

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    Replies
    1. I completely get what you mean. "Danger" undersells it. Like you're going to go to Drindisti and get caught in a hailstorm without an umbrella.

      Delete
  5. So I guess having two people with "III" in their name was a surefire way of good narrative in your 80s RPG :p

    Paul Reiche III, and Rudy Kraft III... didn't know there's so many thirds out there!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And the greatest of them all - Terwin III.

      Delete
    2. And the french pronounce it “turd”.

      Delete
  6. "The character file tracks an "experience" statistic, but the game manual is cagey about what it actually does. It explicitly does not increase your attributes or your hit points, which are always expressed as a percentage anyway."

    It actually does raise your attributes. Take (EXP-1)/1000, log2 it, and that number of bonus points are distributed to your stats.

    I verified this in Atari version of Hellfire Warrior by rolling a new character with 10's in all attributes, and giving him 16001 EXP. The character summary then shows 12 strength, 12 constitution.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I don't know why I said that. What the manual says is: "Aside from keeping a running total of 'experience points' from one adventure to another, you need not concern yourself much with this, since in DUNJONQUEST the computer will make the necessary adjustments to your character."

      Thus, it says nothing "explicit" at all. Correction appended above.

      Delete
    2. Now I'm curious how it figures the allocation. The first 10 allocations give one point each in this order: constitution, strength, constitution, strength, constitution, dexterity, ego, strength, constitution, dexterity. But if one reaches 18, it moves to the next one. It does this regardless of the initial attributes, so if you create a character with 7 in everything except 15 constitution, it still thinks he needs more constitution.

      Delete
    3. This code is what determines the allocation. How it actually works, though, is beyond me.

      1740 ' ADJUST CHARACTER FOR LEVEL
      1745 FOR I=1 TO 6:POKE KB+19+I,PEEK(KA-97+I):NEXT
      1750 GOSUB 1800:VL=L:WP=INT((L+1)/2):SP=WP:IF L=1 THEN RETURN ELSE J=0:I=2:K=0
      1760 IF PEEK(KB+19+IC(J))<18 THEN 1790
      1770 J=J+1:IF J>11 THEN J=0:K=K+1
      1780 IF K>1 THEN RETURN ELSE 1760
      1790 N=KB+19+IC(J):POKE N,PEEK(N)+1:I=I+1:K=0:IF I<=L THEN 1770 ELSE RETURN
      1800 IF EX#<1000 THEN L=1:RETURN ELSE L=INT(LOG(EX#/1000)/LOG(2))+1:RETURN

      Delete
    4. Actually, I think I figured it out.

      The order is constitution, strength, constitution, strength, constitution, dexterity, ego, strength, constitution, dexterity, intuition, intelligence. This list is a hard-coded array (declared as IC) and isn't determined by logic. Like you found out, if a stat is 18, then it moves onto the next one in the lists. And if it reaches the end, then it goes back to the start. If it goes through the whole list twice then we're done.

      Delete
  7. It's interesting to compare this series to its major competitors, Wizardry and Ultima. The latter two series' are vastly superior as games, but I'd say that Dunjonquest does the best job of emulating the experience of playing old-school D&D.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. Until we get to the Gold Box games, you don't experience anything quite like working through a "module" as the Dunjonquest series.

      Delete
  8. I'm pretty sure "Crush, Crumble, & Chomp" used the Dunjonquest engine as well. It's not a CRPG, but it has a robust character creation engine, so in some ways it's more of a CRPG than Rigel or Morloc's.

    You create a unique monster using a set number of monster points, pick a city map (NYC, SF, DC, or Tokyo), and see how long you can rampage before the the authorities (police, national guard, army, mad scientists, etc) put you down.

    In 1982, it was fun, but *slow*.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The text used in this game resembles that of Datasoft's Alternate Reality games.

    I had the Temple of Apshai Trilogy, an "enhanced remake" done in the mid 80s for Atari 8-bit computers. Unfortunately I had none of the documentation and wasn't into tabletop games, so the D&D aspects were lost on me.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I tried to play this a few years ago, but got stuck on the Illusionist level. You didn't happen to make any maps of that, did you?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid I didn't even though I found it confusing. I just bumbled around.

      Delete

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