Sunday, September 18, 2022

Dungeon Master II: The Legend of the Area Outside Skullkeep

My growing map of the wilderness area encircling the titular fortress.
The Dungeon Master series has a great use-based character development system. The danger of such systems is that they become more addictive than the game. I was headed that way in my last Skullkeep session, and I became fully ensorcelled during this session. The last five hours have consisted of about one hour of exploration and four hours of watching my skill levels increase as I fight wolves.
If I ever encounter a wolf in the wild, I'll just punch it.
I encountered the wolves shortly after the last session, in the only area available to me without heading underground. They respawn endlessly, and they're the perfect enemy for grinding because they hit hard enough to require the occasional gulp of a potion (which builds priest skills) but not so hard that I'm in any real danger. As I futilely tried to "clear" them, I built fighter levels with weapons, ninja levels with daggers and fists, priest levels with healing potions, and mage levels with fireballs and "Light" spells. I rotated characters into different positions as they advanced or fell behind, and it wasn't long before everyone was pretty much even. I had to make occasional trips back to town to sell mushrooms (which also respawn), buy food, and refill canteens. Overall, the value of respawning mushrooms seems to be slightly higher than the value of the food I've needed to purchase with them, and that's without even bothering to kill the herds of bullceratops, which I imagine also respawn.
Seri gets a priest level casting a spell that causes everyone to get blue and white sparkles around them.
When characters had full spell bars but no reason to cast, I had them attempt random spell combinations. I recorded what worked and what produced nothing and am about halfway through the potential list. The problem is that when something works, I don't often know what it does. For instance,  ZO BRO ROS made some kind of green mist shimmer in front of us for a few seconds, but I don't know what it did. OH IR ROS made my characters dance around in their formation for a while. Sometimes spells just fizzle even when the combination is valid. And unless the spell fills a potion jar or happens to level someone up when he or she casts it, I don't even know if it's a priest or mage spell.
Slowly figuring out what spells do.
Eventually, I forced myself to push forward. The wolves were guarding a hollow full of swamp squares, which impede movement out of them. The passages were narrow, so it's good that enemies like to run around randomly a lot in combat. Otherwise, the wolves would have just choked the passages and I wouldn't have been able to get anywhere. Deep in their territory, I found a round stone altar with another clan key piece, a moon key, and another magic map. Elsewhere, I found a pile of bones next to a horned helm and a chest. The chest had a necklace called "Suzerain" and a scarab. Both of the pieces of jewelry seemed to increase mana. I tried bringing the bones back to the resurrection altar, but nothing happened.
Someone else didn't do so well against the wolves.
The wolves' area had a lot of passages inaccessible because of pits, and I can only assume I'll find a "Levitate" spell or some item that lets me cross them. I can see coins on the other sides of some of them.
A curious thing happened in the northern part of the wolves' territory. A long passage looped back to the bullceratops fields, but it arrived in a place where I hadn't mapped a passage before. Either I made a mistake the first time or something I did "unlocked" the passage--probably the latter because if the passage was available from the outset, you could reach the area beyond the lightning door without the lightning key. 
These locked doors, with keyholes in the obelisk, close off major sections of the outdoor realm.
The moon key opened a door back in the thief's realm. The thief, who screams "Mine!" as he tries to snatch whatever he can from the hands of adjacent characters, is not quite as annoying as the "Giggler" from Dungeon Master. Or maybe I've just developed more patience. When he steals something, he always drops it in a predictable location, so you can just get it back. There only ever seems to be one of them at a time, with a new one respawning a few seconds after you kill the previous one. When he dies, he drops a dagger and several gold coins, so he's good for grinding. I discovered that if I just wanted some peace and quiet for a while, I could almost kill him, at which point he'd go running off to some corner for at least a few minutes.
This was how I felt, at least, until I reached the area behind the moon door, which was absolutely full of the little #$*@ers. After some initial frustrating forays, I gave up trying to hold on to my stuff. Their lair, which also had a couple of giant worms, really held nothing of interest except a shield, an obelisk, a keyed door, and a passage east to another area. I reloaded, didn't worry about fighting the thieves, and just ran past them. Enemies fortunately do not cross between areas, marked by treed archways.
Enemies do not pass these barriers.
Shortly after reaching the new area, I encountered a new enemy--a giant barbarian with two axes. He looked fearsome, but I was happy to be past the thieves and have something new to fight--until he swiped my fighter's sword and ran off with it. One point for you, Skullkeep.
He looks fearsome, but he turns out to just be another thief.
As with his smaller cousins, I mostly ignored him as I mapped his area, which had another stone altar and an exit to the north. Several more of them appeared when I approached the altar, and they began hurling double-bladed axes at us. I snatched the clan piece key and the key to the other door in the thieves' area, then fled to the north.
I was surprised to find another village, complete with shops for armor, equipment, and weapons. They seemed to have larger selections than the first village, and the weapon shop sold some things that sounded like plot items, including a vacuum fuse and a large gear. I took note of the items but didn't buy anything for now.  
What do you bet this is the solution to a puzzle somewhere?
I returned to the previous area and slowly took care of the axe giants. I overloaded the hell out of my characters with all their axes and headed back to the first town to sell them and regroup. To get back to town, I used a teleportation pentagram in the south of the thieves' area. I figured out how those work at some point. You have to stand on them and then use the "Techshield" that I found in a previous session. It takes you to the large raised pentagram in the middle of the village. Unfortunately, the trip is one-way. You have to walk back.
Judging by sale prices, the axes were the best weapons I've found so far, so I sold everything else, plus the excess axes. By now, I had plenty of money, and I knew where to get more, so I went on a spending spree. I bought a magic sword called Excsymyr that seems to grant additional mana points and hopefully clears up any skin conditions. I bought boots (including a set of mithril boots), helmets, and armor for the characters who didn't have any. There are some expensive pieces of armor in the armor shop, including "fire armor" and mithril, and it's nice to have something to save for.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There are a lot of respawning, edible things that grow on trees. Most of them can be sold or traded to the tavernkeeper. An exception is something called a "Bainbloom." It can't be eaten and the tavernkeeper doesn't seem to want it.
  • My highest level achieved so far is "Adept" (7). I think everyone was at "Journeyman" (4) in their skills last time, but since then I've progressed some of them through "Craftsman" (5) and "Artisan" (6).
  • I have a sense that the different magic maps I'm finding do slightly different things. It's on my list to analyze them next time. 
  • I have a couple of blue things marked with the YA and EW runes, and I can't figure out what to do with them. You can't eat them and they can't be activated from the hand. I think a spell created one of them.
I've largely lost any connection with the game world and what I'm supposed to be doing. This is primarily the fault of my erratic playing schedule, but the game doesn't help. I can see why people think Lands of Lore is the superior RPG. With continual cinematics, scrolls, and NPC comments, you never forget your quest or the basic nature of the game world. The designers of Skullkeep seem to have gone out of their way to avoid putting any text in the game. There are no monster names (as usual), no NPC names. Spells use symbols and shops use signs with pictures on them. The only writing I've found so far is the scroll that told me how to use the resurrection altar.
It's intriguing how the game has yet to feature any famous Dungeon Master puzzles. I assume they come along in Skullkeep itself, but so far it's all been mapping and combat. I figure I have at least one more entry to make in the outdoor area, including its underground sections, at which point I'll finally be ready to tackle the castle.
Next up: the legend of the areas beneath Skullkeep.
I'm posting this a couple of weeks before I thought I'd be blogging again, having found a little time to play Skullkeep even during the busy opening weeks of the semester. There is something a bit unwieldy about the game that makes me postpone my sessions even when I might otherwise have a little time. No matter how many hours I spend on it, I can't seem to master the control scheme. I strafe when I mean to turn, and vice versa. I right-click when I should left-click, and vice versa. Nobody ever seems to be holding the right items in their hands. The first combat of every session I flub because I start clicking on the weapons at the top of the screen rather than in the combat panel. I mis-time movement and bash into walls. And I can never quite get used to manipulating the numberpad with my left hand. These things get better as the session goes along, but they deter me from starting the game in the first place. More than once over the last two weeks, I've sat down at my computer intending to give Skullkeep a few hours and ended up doing crossword puzzles instead. I'll see if I can get some more forward momentum this week.
Time so far: 10 hours


  1. With DM you never really had to train all your group in the different skills. I remember importing my party into CSB and going up stupid amounts of levels in the first room because my front characters got so many ninja levels from kicking the worms. They had won easily enough in DM.

    And what I liked from this system was that I actually had trained up the front characters to be priests as well as warriors, and the back characters to be ninjas as well as mages. I WAS exploiting the mechanics, but not to excess.

    I don't know what the cure is. I never finished DM2 for the record either, but I'm pretty sure you don't have to max stuff out. (By the way, there are some good DM-style puzzles in the tower, as you intuit.)

    1. Character progress mechanics based on ability usage seem to me much more exploitable than exp-based systems; repeating the same action all over again with no real danger or limitation strikes me as the worst possible kind of grinding.

      Are they really that great?

    2. In the case of this entry, for example, there's fundamentally little difference between what the Addict is doing and traditional level grinding - EXCEPT that he's incentivized to engage in it more directly instead of just spamming basic attacks.

      In a more general sense, mindlessly performing actions over and over to raise the associated state in systems of this sort are usually a case of refusing to engage with the system rather than a flaw in said system. The vast majority of games that have this sort of character development either strongly incentivize leveling "naturally" (by giving bonus gains scaled to difficulty of task in whatever manner makes sense), or penalizes "unnatural" leveling (such as reducing experience for simpler/easier tasks, or instituting some sort of "only a certain number of events in a given period of time count" system).

      As to what people like about them, the biggest two reasons are interrelated.

      First, there's the satisfaction of seeing a direct correlation with what you're doing in the game and how your character develops. Constantly jumping from ledge to ledge? You become a better jumper. Stab things a lot? You become a better stabber. Like stealing somebody's lungs when they're not looking? You become a better lungstealer.

      Second, and very similar, is the concept of verisimilitude - the ability of the fictional environment to feel "real". This is often confused with realism - the notion that things in the game act like real life - but this is wrong. Giant flying reptiles that breathe fire are not realistic, but dragons are no barrier to verisimilitude as long as they're portrayed consistently and believably. A traditional class-and-level system is simple and easy to use, but it is inherently non-diagetic - it bears no real connection to anything in the game other than " is stronger now!". A skill-based system not only fits diagetically into the game, there's no oddities like "I shot a bunch of deathclaws in the face, now I'm better at shoving this bit of scrap metal into my gun to make it stronger!".

    3. On the whole I prefer level-based games, with a decent structure of side-quests so that I have a rough idea of where I am supposed to be.

      I think 'grinding' of either sort has an element of verisimilitude in that if you had sworn to save the world by taking out the Big Boss you'd grab any edge that you could. The problem comes when the system tempts you to exploit it too much to be really playing the game. DM worked for me because I was probably a bit naive in such systems. If you'd asked me would my team get stronger if I rotated them to learn the different skills, I'd have said yes, but I didn't really think of doing it. Likewise even when I had plenty of food I never really thought of casting a zillion fireballs into the void.

    4. One of the most basic rules of good game design has to be to reward things that are fun and don't reward things that aren't fun. Getting more powerful through usage falls in the latter camp for me. Sure practice and training are how skills improve in real life, but that's exactly the kind of un-fun stuff that should be abstracted away. I just assume my characters are doing that during their downtime at camp, I don't need to be virtually directing them.

    5. One of the things I learned from reading this blog is just how much some people love grinding. They really enjoy maxing out all levels and skills on all characters. This sounds like tedium to me, but it takes all kinds in this big world. When I play, I just kill the creatures it seems I'm supposed to kill and figure my characters level naturally. Going into an area just to fight random combats for hours is something I never do. When I replayed Phantasy Star a few years back there was an area where I had to do exactly that: wander around and fight random monsters in order to progress. I didn't finish the game.

      I remember the original Dungeon Master, my buddy who was teaching me told me to put my spellcasters in the front ranks and fight without weapons to get some ninja levels. There's a line between doing something like that and killing monsters for hours until your inventory is bursting with screamer slices.

    6. Then is the problem with walzingthat technically means you could clear any enemy in the game without leveling with enough patience

    7. I'm with Harlan.
      All that tedium some people are willing to endure just to avoid the fun of challenges boggles my mind.

    8. We've had the grinding argument a million times by now and I don't feel like engaging it again. But I do want to point out that what I did this session is indicative of neither my usual approach nor what the game requires. I haven't met an enemy yet who was so difficult that I felt I had to grind, and I usually wait for that to happen before I do grind. Sometimes you just get stuck in a rut and spin your wheels for a while for no reason except that you lack a general motivation.

    9. But don't take the grinding discussion as an identity! This is the problem you, and you guys have so many times when having any discussion: you confuse discussions as arguments, and you confuse choices as identity traits, and criticisms of these choices as an attack to yourself. Personally, I fall in the field that I like to do any mechanic 1k times, but not 10k times. Yay for short games.

      I do think though that the DM games are designed in a way that you can approach them with or without the need of min maxing, grinding or whatever gamey term. And to add, I think that DM2 is so beautiful.

    10. I'm not normally into grinding, but when I played Octopath Traveler a few years ago, I found that there were places where I could do "directed" grinding - targeting certain kinds of character growth in a way that enabled a very specific strategy I wanted to employ against the next boss, and that particular form of grinding did appeal to me a lot.

    11. Had to look up "diegetic." If you are going to show off your vast vocabulary, please, at least spell the words correctly.


      (of sound in a movie, television program, etc.) occurring within the context of the story and able to be heard by the characters.
      "the music used is strictly diegetic"

      1. The presentation of a narrative without direct dramatic imitation of the events, scenes, or characters described.
      2. The world that is depicted in a work of narrative art, especially a film.

    12. "Diegetic" has become a pretty standard term of art for anyone talking about games (or cinema) in a serious way. I don't blame anyone for not knowing it, but it's also not some incredibly arcane words, any more than terms like "catalytic" or "sacroiliac" or "probiotic". They mean specific things, so there's a word for it.

      It's an important skill in life not to take it personally (or to assume evil intent) when someone knows something you don't. After all, most people do!

    13. (Arcane word, that is. How I miss the preview button...)

    14. "Has become" implies that it is a recent term. I'm pretty certain I've seen it in reference to films (mostly with music) in reviews dating back to the 70s.

      In gaming, I'm nearly certain I saw it used (without clarification, meaning that it was expected that the audience would know it) in magazine reviews for the (horrible) 1998 game Jurassic Part: Trespasser, which tried to make everything diegetic to the extreme (instead of a HUD, the player character counts her shots verbally, and you look at a tattoo on her breast to check health; and interaction is done by directly moving her arm) to horrible results.

    15. It's kind of hard to escape some of the weirdness of character progression.

      Day 1: Said bye to Mama, drank my first beer, killed a rat.

      Day 20: I'm a regional power in my own right.

    16. "Has become" implies that it is a recent term. I'm pretty certain I've seen it in reference to films (mostly with music) in reviews dating back to the 70s.

      I agree that it's (demonstrably) an old word for film scholarship; I primarily had video game scholarship / discussion (aka "ludology", a moderately silly word) in mind with my post, with my reference to cinema meant as an aside.

      I seem to remember learning the term in the early 2010s, and then suddenly seeing it everywhere in discussions of video games (scholarly and otherwise). It may just be the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work -- and probably is -- but communities also take up existing words pretty suddenly, of course, and there was a big push around then to take video games more seriously as an object of study.

  2. What makes you think the techshield's teleport is one-way only ? It definitely works both ways.

    1. I couldn't get it to work when I tried it but maybe I just did something wrong or it was a situation-specific glitch. I'll give it another shot.

  3. Well Ya Ew is clearly summoning goblin droppings... or maybe a resilient sphere?

  4. "Either I made a mistake the first time or something I did "unlocked" the passage--probably the latter because if the passage was available from the outset, you could reach the area beyond the lightning door without the lightning key. "

    Correct. The game does that a few times and it feels kind of jarring.

    I'm not sure why they could not have used a gate/doir with a sw


    1. Apologies, continuing...

      I'm not sure why the devs could not have used a gate/door with a switch on the other side as they already do in other places.

  5. Bainbloom can be used to cast some sort of offensive spell IIRC

  6. Alternating between DM2, Angband and he Bard's Tale and Tygus Horx right now must be a draining experience - lots of grind, lots of slog with little really new things happening, and all three with different (but irritating in their own right) control schemes... You have my sympathies!

    1. That should read "DM2, Angband and the Bard's Tale clone Tygus Horx" up there, don't know how that comment got so mangled.

  7. Your last paragraph has a certain *I'm getting too old for this* vibe, but I'm just happy about another entry when I didn't expect it...

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 19, 2022 at 1:00 PM

      Ditto - this entry was a welcome surprise.

  8. Dosbox's keyboard remapping feature is a bit daunting initially, but definitely useful in these cases.

    I have a 10-keyless keyboard, I just mapped movement to the WASD cluster and I had a reasonably good experience with the controls (my savefiles have weird names as a consequence, but it's a small price to pay)

  9. Important thing about the TechShield: if you use it to teleport back to the village, then using it at the village's central marker brings you back to where you were in the first place. No need to walk back!

    If you're interested in good gear you can buy in shops:
    Ibenkrf (gur erq nkrf va gur cbfg-ivxvat fubcf) ner gur orfg jrncbaf va gur tnzr. Sver cbyrlaf (erq yrt cyngrf) ner nyfb irel tbbq orpnhfr gurl vapernfr lbhe punenpgref' fgeratgu.

  10. By the way several of the weapons are reskinned and renamed versions of weapons in DM1, including the rare ones. That can help figuring out what they do, and how good they are - at least, if you remember them from there.

  11. DM II did have a better fleshed out world (even inside the dungeon), but it was curiously lacking the typical DM-puzzlesd. There are some in DM 2, but few. Maybe they thought they couldnt top Chaos strikes back in this regard and went into a different direction.

  12. Yes, I said there were some in the tower, and I remember thinking one in particular was the best DM puzzle ever... but you are correct insofar as there were not nearly so many.

  13. DM2 puzzles are neither good nor bad.

  14. "I don't even know if it's a priest or mage spell."

    IIRC, there is a priest symbol or a wizard symbol showing briefly in the spell area when the spell fizzles indicating which level you need to train to cast it successfully. The question marks show there, when the rune combination is not valid.

    1. That's right. It's in the manual on page 43:

      "A correct combination invoked by the inexperienced also results in the dissipation of the Mana involved, but a very small amount of experience is gained in the attempt. In this case a brief glance of the sphere of influence invoked is shown, either DAIN or NETA."

      The DAIN symbol (an abstraction of a wizard's staff) represents a wizard skill and the NETA symbol (a cross) represents a priest skill.

      However, the results are only visible for an extremely short time. I never noticed these when playing without the manual, and even knowing what to look for, it's hard to see, because the symbol is surrounded by some other pixels that represent sparks. Also, the designers must have set the display duration to very low because otherwise the results display would occlude the combat UI and slow the player down a little.

    2. Yeah, Bitmap is right. If you can make out the symbol in the brief time it flashes on the screen, you're more astute than I am. Another problem is that the damages flash too quickly.

    3. I suppose a person is more astute playing games at the tender age of 13. Also memory worked better then, as evidenced by me being able to recall such a detail as a decrepit 40 years old.

    4. DM1 did it differently: it shows a message like this down at the bottom of the screen.

      "Wuuf needs more practice with this priest spell."

      Also, the damage display is visible for a little bit longer. Can't help but feel that the UI of DM2 is a tiny little bit worse than the one of DM1.

  15. I wonder if you have discovered the movable boulders and candles, they are new in DM2. It took me a while, because double weapons or not, I was quickly in a DM mindset when playing and applied the old rules.

    I find it interesting that the underground plays a larger role. It helps to have a hiding spot against the lightnings, those can actually wipe your party. The manual warns if I remember right, but I had to experience it for a learning effect.

    While the tower looms and promises more riddles, I actually liked the outside areas.

    1. Just did last night. Funny--I don't think I've been hit by lightning once. I didn't realize it was a hazard.

    2. "Just did"=just encountered movable boulders and candles.

  16. "I can see why people think Lands of Lore is the superior RPG. With continual cinematics, scrolls, and NPC comments, you never forget your quest or the basic nature of the game world. The designers of Skullkeep seem to have gone out of their way to avoid putting any text in the game. There are no monster names (as usual), no NPC names. Spells use symbols and shops use signs with pictures on them. The only writing I've found so far is the scroll that told me how to use the resurrection altar."

    Lands of Lore is great in that regard. The story proceeds at a good pace, and the animated cutscenes are a real reward. The tone of the writing is very pleasant -- not overly serious, but also not ironic or silly.

    But the stories and writing of most other RPGs are rather tedious and irritating to me personally, aside from some Ultimas and a couple of other accomplished game stories. In contrast, the wordless Dungeon Master games are never annoying and nicely atmospheric. I'd like more wordless games that still achieve some kind of ambience and a certain depth in the world design.


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