Thursday, December 29, 2011

Game 68: The Dungeon/PEDIT5 (1975)

Unfortunately, not the original welcome screen. But probably close.


Here I am, nearly two years after starting this blog, doing what I should have done in the beginning: playing the first CRPG, regardless of platform. The Dungeon was written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It is also known as PEDIT5 because of its original file name, kept generic (the prefix belonged to the Population and Energy group) to avoid signaling that it was a game.

In 2008, Mr. Rutherford described the history of the game in an e-mail sent to Matt Barton and published at Armchair Arcade. In it, he confirms the year as 1975 (in my previous posting, I thought it might have been 1974) and notes that dnd (of which you'll hear more about soon) was already in development. The game features single-character gameplay in a fixed 40-50-room dungeon with random encounters. The character is a generic fighter/magic-user/cleric based on the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons, which had been released the previous year.

We don't know, of course, whether PEDIT5 was the "first" CRPG. For all we know, there were hundreds of such efforts around the world after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, some only half-completed, some only played by the author and his friends. Lore tells of one named m199h that predates PEDIT5 and was lost. What we can say is that PEDIT5 was probably the first CRPG that is widely played, and it is the earliest CRPG that we can still play now.


The manual documents the game thoroughly.


I'm playing it thanks to the folks at Cyber1, who have resurrected the PLATO system and have been collecting its original programs (or "lessons," as PLATO was an educational tool). The manual sets the game in the year 666 in a dungeon called Ramething, beneath a castle of the same name in the town of Mersad ("ambush" in Persian) in the country of Caer Omn (as far as I can tell, "Caer Omn" and "Ramething" are original). You play a "brave young fighter" heading into the dungeon to collect treasure, with the ultimate goal of amassing 20,000 experience points before fleeing the dungeon.


No re-rolling! These early games were brutal.


The game begins by rolling you four attributes: strength, intelligence, constitution, and dexterity. You also get a random roll for hit points. Presumably, Rutherford couldn't think of a meaningful way to program in wisdom or charisma. After giving your character your name, you're dumped into the dungeon at the entrance. Since there are no safe havens, there's no reason not to just head out and go exploring.


Casting a spell in combat. Unfortunately, the "Level 5 Man" defeated me.


Navigation is with the arrow keys and the "b" key to "bash" doors (which has a chance of failing). There are even secret doors, which the manual says you have a 1/6 chance of detecting each time you pass. 


The first CRPG is also the first CRPG with secret doors.


Although there are 16 spells in the game (8 mage and 8 cleric, divided into two levels each), you start with only one mage spell. The spells are similar to D&D (sleep, magic missile, cure, hold person, etc.) but with some odd rules influenced by programming limitations. There are no "saving throws," for instance: sleep always works (but not on undead); invisibility just allows you to flee; and charm causes monsters to instantly kill themselves.


A "sleep" spell allows you to effect a satisfying coup-de-grace [dammit, I can't figure out how to make a circumflex in Blogger].


I'm not sure how the game decides which of its 25 monsters (represented by 5 icons) to throw at you. My first encounters, near the entrance, were generally with level 1 rats and kobolds. As I explored, however, I invariably encountered something like a level 5 wight well before I was prepared to deal with it. I never found a dragon.
    
It was too soon for undead.
    
The initial attribute roll is enormously important in determining success. None of my characters who got less than a 10 in strength or dexterity survived their first combats. The manual notes that "when you and a monster have combat, you take alternating swings at each other until one is dead." In practice, the game told me that I either defeated the monster or was killed instantly. I don't know if this is because, at my level, the combats took only one round, or if the game just runs all the rounds quickly, in sequence, and tells you the result.


The usual result.
   
You can achieve up to 5 character levels in the game, although you get access to more spells in between levels. You can also improve by finding a sword +1 or a sword +2. Each monster has a certain number of hit points and is worth a certain number of experience points depending on its level. Level 1 kobolds have 1-3 hit points and are worth 10 experience points, while the toughest creature in the game--dragons--have 6-36 hit points and are worth 840 experience points. With the goal to get to 20,000 experience (though this also includes treasure you find), it takes an awful lot of combat.


Why wouldn't you take it?!


I'd like to be able to say that I played it all the way to 20,000 experience points and "won" the first CRPG, but after I fielded about 25 characters, all of them dying within the first 6 combats, none of them achieving more than 250 experience points, I realized it would take far too long. Some people did it, though: the "Hall of Fame" lists at least 10 players who got more than 20,000 experience; the highest is someone named just "Bob." I'm not sure if this is some original file that reflects players from the 1970s, or if it just shows recent players with Cyber1 accounts. RPGCodex user Elzair (who sometimes comments in my blog) did a "let's play" almost three years ago and had similar ill luck; his posting on it is worth reading if you want more screenshots and rage faces. I Googled a bit, but I was unable to find a testimonial or screenshots from anyone who won the game. I suspect that it doesn't really acknowledge the "win" or do anything special, and that you just have to smile in satisfaction at your high score in the Hall of Fame.


Some day I shall sit around a campfire and tell my sons the epic tale of "the goose."

I'm actually quite impressed. I would have forgiven the first CRPG for being really basic and dumb: perhaps a text-only game in which you managed some basic attributes against some random encounters. (In fact, I've played this game; it was called Braminar, and it came out 12 years after PEDIT5.) Instead, we get a fairly large dungeon, a solid set of attributes, challenging random encounters, 8 spells, monsters with resistances based on type, and graphics that the DOS platform won't surpass until Ultima III. It's a bit too hard, of course, but hell, when it was the only CRPG in existence, a little challenge--and the ability to rate your score against your friends'--was the whole point. For my money, this is at least as good a game as Akalabeth, one of the first commercial CRPGs, which had fewer monsters and encounters, fewer spells, and less sensible character progression. Obviously, I don't recommend playing it now, except as an archaeological exercise; any roguelike will give you a similar challenge with a better gameplay experience.

The manual has an optimistic "future improvements" section, including a multi-level dungeon, that never got implemented because Rutherford left the Population & Energy group in 1976. But Resch, Kemp, Hagstrom, and Nakada incorporated the suggested developments into Orthanc, which I will play anon. My next PLATO-related posting, however, will be on dnd, and I'll talk a bit about the information I picked up from one of its developers, Dirk Pellett.

If you're waiting for an update on Wizardry V, I'm still playing, but having trouble assembling enough interesting material for a blog entry. I'll post something this weekend on it no matter where I am. In the meantime, here are some final words from The Dungeon/PEDIT 5:


****

For further reading: I continue my adventures in the PLATO series with The Game of Dungeons, Orthanc, Moria, Oubliette, and Avatar.

For a fuller account of this game, check out Nathan Mahney's posts on "CRPG Adventures," where he manages to win the game in only 2 days--and provide the only complete map of the dungeon online!




Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Earliest CRPGs

The welcome screen of Dungeon, a 1975 PLATO CRPG.


Jazz vies with CRPGs as the great passion of my life. My favorite jazz recording is the 1927 of Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, and Jimmy Dorsey playing "Singin' the Blues" (there's a slightly-bad YouTube version here). The piece is notable as a transition point in jazz, between the joyous, polyphonic cacophony of New Orleans-style jazz and the era of great soloists, and between the carefully-orchestrated pseudo-improvisation (on recordings, at least) of Dixieland and the actual improvisation of the forthcoming bebop era.

What's particularly notable about the performance is that the band never states the melody. From the moment that Trumbauer swoops in with his C-melody saxophone, it's all improvisation. If you had the lyrics in front of you, you'd still have trouble singing along, just like you would with Coleman Hawkins's 1939 recording of "Body and Soul." But you don't have the lyrics in front of you, no matter what a host of web sites tell you; you can't, because we don't really know what they were. I've never even been able to find a "straight" version of the melody. All we can do is try to reconstruct it from the Beiderbecke/Trumbauer performance.

There's a lot about the history of jazz that's like this. We're not really sure where the term came from. We don't know what early jazz bands sounded like because they weren't recorded until 1917, and even then they were crammed into three minutes.. Of perhaps the first great jazz soloist, New Orleans's Buddy Bolden, we have no recordings and only one scratchy photograph. We're not sure who played the trombone on "Singin' the Blues" or some of the instruments on many of Louis Armstrong's early recordings. Much of the history of jazz is simply lost.

Thankfully, the same doesn't have to be true of CRPGs. Unlike jazz, whose antecedents trace to the antebellum south, we can fix the earliest possible origin of CRPGs. Computing power didn't exist to create them until the 1970s and, a few quasi-CRPG precursors aside, they couldn't have been created earlier than the first commercial non-computer RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, came out in 1974. Thus, to search for the earliest CRPGs, we need go no further than the early 1970s which, while almost 40 years ago, was only 40 years ago. Plenty of the first CRPG developers and players are still around. Much of the source code still exists.

In Dungeons and Desktops (2008), Matt Barton calls the 1970s the "Dark Age" of CRPGs, but he does his best to sort through some of the gloom. His account generally matches, but in a few notable cases conflicts, with the recollections of Dirk Pellett, an early CRPG contributor who wrote a history of early CRPGs in an introduction to dnd on Cyber1's PLATO mainframe. Pellett's history, unfortunately not accessible from the Internet, appeared in 2010.

Both trace the first CRPGs to 1974, almost immediately after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Pellett gives the "first" CRPG as a file called "m119h," which was deleted soon after its creation by someone on the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the mainframe was intended for "serious academic study and coursework," administrators were quick to delete game programs, and one suspects that there were any number of CRPGs created and deleted while in various stages of development during this era.

The earliest surviving CRPG seems to be a 1974 or 1975 game called The Dungeon by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford, who was studying in Urbana. He titled the file "pedit5" (which some sources give as the name of the game) to keep it from being deleted as an obvious game. This didn't save it, but somehow the source code got preserved, and it's available on Cyber1 now.


Perhaps the earliest CRPG still in existence.


The game uses an iconographic perspective with surprisingly good icons.




The original dnd by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood came out the same year, and some sources put it earlier than The Dungeon. The game underwent several versions, and this is the one that Dirk Pellett and his brother Flint Pellett are credited with contributing to. It also uses an iconographic perspective, and its random encounters with creatures and treasure show it as the obvious precursor to the DND/Telengard line of games by Daniel Lawrence that I wrote about in July 2010




The odd thing is that most histories insist that Daniel Lawrence's DND is "not to be confused" with the original dnd, but to me it's obvious that the former is a descendant of the latter, and indeed, Dirk Pellett claims quite bluntly that Lawrence plagiarized his DND (which he commercialized as Telengard) from the original Whisenhunt/Wood dnd. Lawrence, says Pellett, had been attending Purdue University, and:

At some point, he made a blatant copy of dnd on a DEC computer at Purdue, without the knowledge or permission of any of dnd's original authors. It become popular...and spread to other places with DEC computers, always with the 'author' credited as Daniel Lawrence. He later created and successfully marketed Telengard based on the ideas in dnd, without the knowledge or permission of dnd's authors, and without sharing with them any of the money he got from it.

[Later note: In an e-mail to me after this posting was originally published, Dirk Pellet indicated that after he had written this article on the PLATO system, he had a chance to view the source code of Lawrence's DND, and he admits to being less certain that Lawrence directly plagiarized dnd in developing his own game. I'll post more about this when I cover dnd in an upcoming posting.]

Pellett's claims of plagiarism don't stop there. He also says that dnd was plagiarized by a PLATO user nicknamed "Balsabrain," who turned it into an identical game called Sorcery. When the administrators discovered it:

The copy was promptly deleted, and Balsabrain learned that if he wanted to plagiarize PLATO games, he would have to do it OFF of PLATO. He put that lesson to use by plagiarizing Oubliette when he 'created' 'his' game of Wizardry and began to market it.

"Balsabrain," you see, is none other than Robert Woodhead. I played a version of Oubliette in 2010, and I noted the game's obvious influence on Wizardry, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to accuse Woodhead and Greenberg of plagiarizing it. I took a look at the original (1977) Oubliette, and while it does use the same set of attributes, the same first-person perspective, and the same wire-frame dungeon as Wizardry, the original version seems to have only supported a single character. I don't know whether that's enough. There's a fine line between plagiarism and homage.

Other PLATO CRPGs of the 1970s include:

  • Dungeon (1975), by John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel, and Mark Nakada, which I haven't been able to get to run yet.
  • Orthanc (1978), by Paul Resch, Larry Kemp, Eric Hagstrom, and Mark Nakada, which appears to be an advanced version of The Dungeon/pedit5. This makes sense, as a number of sources say that when "pedit5" was saved, it was renamed "orthanc1."

Orthanc seems to be The Dungeon but with more options and instructions.


  • Moria (1978), by Kevet Duncombe and Jim Battin, a first-person game not to be confused with Moria roguelike.
  • Avatar (1979), by Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira, David Sides, Tom Kirchman, Greg Janusz, and Mark Eastom, which offers a tiny first-person wireframe dungeon but also additional icons.

An Avatar screen shot.


My quick review of these games seems to support a couple of conclusions. First of all, the earliest CRPGs were quickly divided into the top-down/iconographic branch and the first-person branch. The former started with The Dungeon and/or dnd and gave rise to the family of difficult dungeon-crawls filled with random encounters that we saw in Telengard, Caverns of Zoarre, CaveQuestand DND. Roguelikes also seem to have developed from this branch.

The second branch, starting with Oubliette, spawned (through adaptation or plagiarism) Wizardry and, from there, Might & Magic. Richard Garriott, in the meantime, synthesized the two branches in the Ultima series (starting with Akalabeth) by mixing iconographic outdoor exploration with first-person dungeon exploration.

Now that the good folks at Cyber1 have lent me an account, I feel compelled to play and report on some of the earliest CRPGs, so I'll start with The Dungeon and let you know how it goes. In the meantime, in the event that I've gotten something wrong or I missed a major point here, I encourage anyone with more detailed knowledge of CRPG history to comment.






Friday, December 23, 2011

Wizardry V: It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Torture

The new party. Level 3 kicked up the monster difficulty a bit, with many more creatures that can paralyze, poison, and kill instantly.


Somewhere between Wizardry IV and Wizardry V, the folks at Sir-Tech seem to have decided that what was really lacking from their games was some adventure-game-style inventory puzzles. You practically can't turn a corner in V without encountering some encounter that you need some object to solve. To me, this does not enhance the game. Dungeon-crawling in the Wizardry series is tough enough without constantly having to backtrack to find some key. Plus, in a game that seems to remember your actions on levels--key enemies, for instance, don't reappear after you've slain them--why oh why can't the game remember that I've already unlocked this door like 18 times?


The spiritual ancestor of Skyrim's alchemy table.


On Level 2, my party had to find a hacksaw (which I wouldn't have found if I hadn't made it a habit to search for "hidden items" in every room) to cut the chains off a door, which led me to an area where I could craft a "spirit-be-gone" potion (the recipe for which I learned elsewhere from a talking duck), which I then used in a square where a spirit kept stealing away a chest, finally allowing me to open the chest and get a jeweled scepter. On Level 3, outside the locked "Temple of Kama Kazi," I found a priest named--wait for it--"Lord Hienmitey"--who offered to trade me a staff needed to enter the temple for the scepter. I gave it to him and he laughed and said actually the scepter was needed to enter the temple, and he then attacked me. I defeated him, but there was no scepter on his body, which meant I had to go back to Level 2 and go through the whole rigmarole again.


Oh, what a clever name.


(Oddly, Hienmitey later appeared in the temple in the castle. I thought maybe he became an NPC at that point, so I paid to have him healed, which he repaid by taking off and showing up at his old dungeon square again. Why? Oh, and even then, he still didn't have the scepter.)


I was dumb enough to pay to resurrect the guy who stole from me and then tried to kill me.


Wizardry V combines the goofiness that I disliked in Might & Magic II (the temple of "Kama Kazi" reminds me, unfavorably, of the NPC "Hari Kari" in MM2; although given my party members' names, I guess I have nothing to complain about) with the nonsensical inventory-hunting tedium of a 1980s adventure game. The items are so random an unmemorable--I have to find a bag of tokens to activate a teleporter to get to the Hurkle Beast, who's guading a bottle of rum that I must give to a knight to pass through a door--that I wish the game had just said, "To get here, you need Item A." I mean, honestly, a "spirit-be-gone potion"?


I have no idea what this is about, so clearly I'm going to have to slog my way back here later.


Adding to this, the levels are enormous. Here's my map of Level 2:


The 0,0 coordinate on all levels seems to be arbitrary.


Level 3 is looking to be just as large, with a complicated, twisty maze in the middle of it. Because passage depends on finding obscure items, I have to be very concerned about missing secret doors, and thus I have to search all of the perimeter walls and all the walls around squares that I eventually color in. Tedious.


Apparently, I need to find some Gold Bond powder somewhere.


As you've noticed, we've had a change in cast. I made a rookie mistake on Level 2 when, with my previous party, I encountered a group of six slimes. I assumed they were the same easy slimes from Level 1, so I just held down the ENTER key (the game's equivalent of Might & Magic's CTRL-A) to blow through the combat. Before I realized that all of the "Killed!" messages I saw flashing by were referring to my own party, four of my six party members were dead. It turned out I was facing "mustard slimes"--quite a bit more deadly. I tried to limp back to the castle, but my remaining two party members were finished off by the next encounter.

The good news is that most of the length of a Wizardry session is mapping. Thus, just as I did with the first Wizardry, I spent a bunch of time grinding a new group of party members. The golem on Level 1 helped. Eventually, my new party exceeded the previous party and I no longer felt any need to rescue them.

Commenter Delmoko's notice that the "Q" key allows you to save an expedition in the dungeon was a bit of a revelation. I completely missed that in the instructions, and I'm pretty sure it's new to this edition of Wizardry (you could go find dead party members in the dungeon in the previous games, but you couldn't deliberately stop and save there). It would have allowed me to take care of the alignment issue if my full-party death hadn't solved that issue on its own. I haven't tried it, but I think this means you could have multiple parties active in the same dungeon at the same time.


I just hadn't bothered to try the key before.


A few other notes from the levels:

  • I keep encountering pools that invite me to dive in and explore different levels. Mostly, bad things happen to me when I try to do this--poison, disease, and drowning. I note that each of my characters has a "swim" score that probably affects success, but I'm not sure how to improve this.
  • Level 2 offered up encounters with a bunch of dwarf fighters who wanted me to pay them 100 gold pieces "for a drink," which I kept refusing and getting into combats. I'm not sure if there was something more I was supposed to learn here.
  • I encountered my first dragon on Level 3. He was a pushover. I stand by the first paragraph in my Skyrim posting last month.


How much sense does it make to encounter a dragon in a dungeon anyway?

  • I was wrong in an earlier posting that you can't lose attributes when you level up. It's happened a few times. It just doesn't happen on every leveling as it did (at least to me) in the first game.
  • I might be wrong, but monster difficulty seems to be tied not only to the level but the zone within the level. I've found areas where I consistently encounter more difficult battles than any other places on the same level.
  • My thief has started to get a lot worse at identifying and disarming traps. The results are often devastating and require a quick trip back to the surface and temple.



This gets old fast.


My feeling is that if Wizardry was going to stick to the same old rules and graphics, they should have stuck to the same old gameplay. I'd rather be re-playing Wizardry than playing Wizardry with dungeons six times as large and eight times as many special items needed to get through them. It's as torturous as it would be if they had made Skyrim with the Akalabeth engine. And I'm only halfway through Level 3! I'm not sure how I'm going to sustain this blog for seven more levels of this, but by next time I post, I'll have some kind of solution.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wizardry V: Oh, Come All Ye Faithless

One of Level 2's mysteries.

Because I'm otherwise not going to have much to talk about tonight, let me describe what happened in cinematic terms. There's a tl;dr after the script in case you don't like the shtick. 

******
FADE IN

INT. DUNGEON LEVEL 2 - NIGHT

CLOSE-UP: A sword penetrates the slimy skin of a giant toad, piercing between his eyes and into his brain. The disgusting beast collapses in a heap. The sword is yanked roughly from the flesh, and as we DRAW BACK, we see it is held by a bald, scarred, grinning hulk of a man. This is STRONGARM. His left arm is gashed and dripping blood.

STRONGARM
Well, that's the last of them! Doc, I took a bite to my arm. I could use a little DIOS action.

There is no response. Strongarm turns and stares to his right, where four other adventurers are standing above a comical sight: an aged man in chainmail, collapsed on a floor in a contorted position, his legs spread apart and his arms extended as if in the middle of a swing.

STRONGARM
Aw, Christ.

The other four party members are relatively hale. They include a black-clad, hooded thief named 'BONE SHORTY, a robe-wearing elven wizard named MARSALIS, a lithe man in oriental armor named ROUGHINS, and another mail-wearing priest named BECHET.

'BONE SHORTY
Looks like that toad's spit paralyzed him. And Doc's the only one who can cast DIALKO.

BECHET
Let's leave him, then.

STRONGARM
We're not going to leave him! Can you imagine how long it'll take before we get another priest to his level? How long before you can cast the spell, Bechet? You know, we could use a second healer more than we could use a bunch of hocus-pocus nonsense. We have Marsalis for that.

Bechet gives Strongarm the finger.

STRONGARM
He's gonna die soon if we don't get him back up to the castle. Shorty, help me lift him.

'BONE SHORTY
Screw that. My arm still hurts from that jax spike trap I accidentally set off.

ROUGHINS
I'll carry him. Let's just hurry. None of us are in very good shape, and Doc was the only one with decent healing spells. 

Roughins spends some time bending Doc's limbs into a more conducive position before heaving him over his back in a fireman's carry.

ROUGHINS
Good thing we spent all that time on the strength re-rolls.

Slowly, the party lumbers down a cramped hallway, 'Bone Shorty's torch casting a flickering light on the rough, damp walls. After a time, they come to a staircase and lumber upward, Roughins straining under the weight.

STRONGARM
All right. We'll be at the entrance in a few minutes.

Around a corner in front of the party, a group of three men suddenly appear. Their robes bear the sigil of some forgotten dark god. The party tenses, preparing for battle, but the priests simply eye them warily.

PRIEST
Look, I know that normally, people like us just start attacking you. But frankly, we're not looking for a fight. And it looks like you're in pretty rough shape, too. So...

STRONGARM
Fine. Whatever. Just go on by.

The priests nod, edge past the party, and continue their way down the hallway.

STRONGARM
Okay, let's keep moving. We just need to...

He suddenly notices that 'Bone Shorty, Marsalis, and Bechet are staring at him, nostrils flaring.

STRONGARM
What?

'BONE SHORTY
You just let them go?

STRONGARM
Yeah. What? Did you want to fight them? With no priest and half our hit points missing?

MARSALIS
What are you? Like...you're good now?

STRONGARM
No! I'm just trying to get us to the surface! Believe me, I wanted to kill those jackasses. I wanted to drive my sword right through their chests! But I thought we were in a hurry, and...

He trails off. The other three clearly aren't impressed. Roughins is intently studying patterns on the dungeon walls.

'BONE SHORTY
Whatever, man. Let's just get out of here.


Being evil apparently means killing everyone you see.


INT. GILGAMESH'S TAVERN - LATER

Strongarm and Roughins are sharing a drink at a bar.

STRONGARM
They won't let me go with them any more? What is that supposed to mean?

ROUGHINS
Look, I'm sorry, man. You know me: I don't care about good and evil. I'll adventure with anyone. But these guys, they say they have "standards" or something, and they don't want--and I'm quoting Shorty here--"some lily-livered goody-goody showing things like 'mercy' all the time."

STRONGARM
It wasn't mercy! It was practicality! Those guys could have completely messed us up! I'm not good!

ROUGHINS
Tell that to the universe, buddy. You've got this big scarlet "G" branded on you now, and as long as you have it, the other boys say stay away.




STRONGARM
Well, what if I go back into the dungeon myself and slaughter the first friendly group of enemies I see? The universe will change the "G" to an "E" and we'll all be cool again, right?

ROUGHINS
Yeah, I think that'll work.


INT. DUNGEON LEVEL 1 - NIGHT

Strongarm stands in a dungeon hallway, underneath a ladder leading back to the castle. Corpses of bats, scorpions, and men surround him. He is holding his arms outstretched, spinning clockwise in place.

STRONGARM (screaming)
Two hours of this, and every bloody group of monsters that comes down this hallway is hostile! Damn it, someone friendly and non-belligerent--anyone at all--here I am!

An ominous noise responds from the end of the hallway. Strongarm stops spinning and peers into the gloom. Slowy, an ice phantom comes into view. It roars and charges.

STRONGARM
Great! Another hostile one! Aren't you even going to take time to say--hurk!

Strongarm's diatribe is cut short by the instant paralysis inflicted by the beast's claws. He collapses to the dungeon floor as the phantom begins systematically dismembering him.

FADE OUT
******

tl;dr: I was hauling my beaten-up party to the surface when I came across a party of wandering priests. Instead of engaging them, I decided to let them pass, and the game switched the alignment of my lead character to "good." Now none of the other party members except my neutral samurai will join his party. I took him down into the dungeon alone to try to find more friendly monsters to kill, hoping it would switch his alignment back to evil, but I couldn't find any and I eventually got killed.

Now, I either have to resurrect him and keep trying, or I have to train up a new fighter to Level 9. I thought maybe he'd go evil if I attacked an NPC, but it didn't work.

Before all of this happened, I had explored a fairly good chunk of Level 2. There was an odd beast, accessible from the teleporter (the one requiring the bag of tokens) on Level 1, called the "hurkle" beast. Killing him allowed me to explore his lair and find a bottle of rum, which I needed to get past a fighter on the same level.




I also made enough money to buy the last hint from the talking kettle, which made absolutely no sense at this stage, but I expect it will help me in the end.




Even if I manage to figure out the party/alignment situation, I can tell this game is going to take a long time. I just hope I don't run out of things to write about. I may take a return to Wizard Wars for my next posting, but if anyone has any suggestions about how I can make my fighter evil again, please share!

Later edit: Since posting this, I had the rest of my party retrieve Strongarm and resurrect him. I took him back into the dungeon and eventually encountered several wandering, "friendly" parties, but no matter how many times I attack them, my alignment won't shift from "Good." Looks like I'll have to dump the character. Bollocks.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Building a CRPG Glossary


During my last couple of years of blogging, I've encountered a number of CRPG phenomena for which I've suggested there ought to be terms. Lately, this has included:

  • The rhythm that you fall into while repeated re-rolling attributes during character creation, causing you to accidentally blow past the perfect set of statistics. And/or the combination of horror and rage you feel when this happens.


Space...space...space...space...wait...aw, $%*#&.


  • The act of growing so obsessed with character creation that you never actually play the game.
  • After you've taken a break from your game for a week or two, the uncomfortable period in which you don't want to continue with the old character but it seems too soon to create a new character.
  • Rapidly pressing buttons to escape from a conversation you've already experienced, only to click (or hit "A") one too many times and end up asking the same question again.


I couldn't play much today, so I spent a long car ride thinking about other player scenarios that could use terms. Note that I'm explicitly avoiding plot tropes, because those have already been pretty well-covered.

  • The moment, around the 2/3 point of the game, that you start to feel like you haven't been playing optimally, and that you should probably restart and do it right this time.
  • Related, the perverse desire to hit "New Game" when you've already invested 120 hours in your existing one.
  • The rationalizations that you go through while repeatedly extending your allowable game time. (At the start: "I'm only playing for four hours, tops. Then I need to study." After four hours: "Two more hours. I don't have that much material." After two more hours: "All right. I'll just finish this quest and I'm hitting the books." After another hour: "It's more important that I'm relaxed for the test than it is to have a head full of useless knowledge anyway." After three more hours: "Playing games is pretty much as relaxing as sleep is.")
  • The tortuous backstory that you invent for your character to justify joining the thieves' guild, the fighters' guild, the mages' guild, the paladins' circle, the temple, and the assassins' guild all in the same game.


Wouldn't this pretty much unbalance the entire universe? And what's the likelihood that such a person would be referred to using a generic title like "The Hero of Kvatch" in Tamriel's histories?


  • The high positive correlation between likelihood of death and the number of minutes since your last save.
  • Character portrait and icon options that someone obviously took a great deal of time to create and yet it's impossible to imagine anyone using them.

Has anyone ever used this one?

  • The urge to perform CRPG-related activities in real life. (Thanks to Oblivion and Skyrim, I can't pass a field of wildflowers without wanting to stop my car and grab my Swiss Army Knife.)
  • The vexing feeling that somewhere--maybe back in the Dwarven ruin you explored six hours ago--you missed a chest.
  • Undertaking a three-hour journey back to a previously-explored dungeon because a walkthrough informed you of a missed area that will give you 160 more gold pieces and 28 more experience points.


What terms would you suggest for any of the above, or what other player scenarios do you have that deserve terms?

Just an aside: one of the reasons I didn't get much playing done tonight is I went and saw The Muppets. When they re-enacted the opening theme from the old Muppet Show, I damn near cried.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wizardry V: Fa-La-La

It's like the game knew I was doing Christmas puns this week.


In today's episode of "It Pays to Read the Manual," we discover three major things about Wizardry V that would have made my dungeon exploration yesterday a little easier:


  • When shopping in Boltac's Trading Post (any chance Andrew "Werdna" Greenberg and Robert "Trebor" Woodhead had a friend named Catlob?), you have to hit (F)orward to see all the stuff he's got for sale. There's some reasonably cool stuff to buy; I was thinking that I'd be spending my money exclusively on resurrections.


And unlike Demon's Winter, they don't hide the existence of the "Forward" command. I just overlooked it.


  • Some of the items you can purchase are missile weapons. Just yesterday, I was chastising the game for not keeping current. Unfortunately, mages and bishops can't use them, but if I give one to my thief, that's a fourth guaranteed attack each round. Moreover, I could theoretically operate an all-fighter or all-thief party with the ability to shoot from rear ranks. I'll have to think about it.
  • I ran into five locked doors yesterday that I assumed needed keys. It turns out there's a (P)ick command that I overlooked when exploring dungeons.


These features made the game a little better, but the secret door thing is going to  kill me. I found two of them yesterday, both in somewhat non-obvious places, and I don't know how many more I've missed. I can see that I'm going to have to search pretty much every wall. There are a couple of spells that are supposed to help you find them, but neither of them automatically revealed them for me.

The secret doors and picked locks really opened up the game a bit, though. In short order, I had found the Orb of Llylgamyn, a silver key, and a brass key, which got me through (I think) the rest of Level 1 except for a single locked door my thief can't open. The level has turned out to be an oddly-sized 31 x 30, and if all 10 levels are the same size, this is going to be a long game (as some of you have intimated from your comments).

But that's not the exciting part. The exciting part is that I found three NPCs and, by god, they're true NPCs. I can type keywords and everything. You all promised me that Wizardry V introduced a few innovations, and Ultima IV-style dialogue is apparently one of them.

One NPC was, oddly enough, a talking kettle which, for 100, 500, 1,000, 2,500, and 5,000 gold pieces, gives various hints. I learned that HAIL works with every NPC (see below); I need to figure out why the "Mad Stomper" stomps; I should use the power of the demon to open the gate of the mocking face; and that beyond the Hall of Mirrors lies the Loon. I have no idea what the latter three items mean, and I still need to return with 5,000 gold for the last hint.


He'd better not be laughing at how much he's ripping me off.


A second was a merchant named Ironrose, who sold me a key.




The final NPC, the high priest G'Bli Gedook, had the most to say. I've transcribed my conversation below so you can get a sense of the depth they went into here:


  • HAIL: Welcome to the Temple of the Brotherhood. La-La be praised!
  • TEMPLE: What about the temple?
  • BROTHERHOOD: The brotherhood is an ancient order of disciples that follow the wisdom and teachings of the Gatekeeper. La-La be praised!
  • GATEKEEPER: The Gatekeeper is the high guardian of the Triaxial Gate. It is he that understands the true nature of the Triaxial Gate and the elemental forces that travel through it. Do you seek the Gatekeeper?
  • YES: La-La be praised! We have great need of thee. The Gatekeeper has vanished into the Triaxial Gate. It is there you must seek him out.
  • TRIAXIAL: The Triaxial Gate is the portal for the elemental forces, earth, water, fire, and air to enter our plan of existence. It is the Gatekeeper who maintains the eternal balance among these forces. La-La be praised!
  • LA-LA: La-La be praised!
  • BALANCE: Whenever the elemental forces become unstable, the balance is disturbed, and a powerful rift materializes in our world. The Gatekeeper enters into the nexus of this rift, known as the Heart, and therein performs the sacred rite, thus realigning the forces and restoring the balance.
  • RIFT: The elemental rift has appeared once again, caused by evil incantations originating from within this temple. These dark incantations were invoked by an archrival of the Gatekeeper, a demonic diety [sic] known as "The Sorn." La-La protect us!
  • SORN: The Sorn is the very essence of evil incarnate, a diabolical fiend whose source of power comes from spreading chaos and destruction in our world. Once the rift had appeared, the Sorn waited until the Gatekeeper entered into the nexus, and then trapped him there, within the very heart of the forces over which the Gatekeeper was the only source of control. La-La have mercy!"
  • ORB: The Divine Orb of Llylgamyn! Use the Orb to open the Triaxial Gate, and then descend into the fury, into the Heart of the Maelstrom!

I have no idea who "La-La" is. I don't remember the name coming up as the world's "diety" before; if it had, I can't believe I wouldn't have remarked on its lameness. (One suspects the developers had a friend named Al.) Of course, I didn't finish any of the previous games.

There was a riddle that stumped me for a while:




The answer was VAMPIRE, but it threw me because the statue is clearly not a vampire. Instead, it looks like a cat, and you have to admit that CAT sort-of goes with the first part of the riddle. Heck, it doesn't go bad with the second part, either. Beyond it was the toughest battle on the level, against a golem, which forced me to resurrect three of my characters. Because of the greedy kettle, I had to grind for a while to earn the cash.

At one point, I fell down a pit to Level 2 and I experienced that half-excited, half-terrified feeling that you get when you lose your tether and you carefully creep down the hallways, looking for a ladder or rope back to a familiar place.


I'm not sure what the bag of tokens is for, but I'm really hoping I get to go on a tilt-a-whirl.


As I prepare to explore Level 2 in earnest, I'm surprised at how much character development occurred on Level 1. My characters are all level 7 and my spellcasters have more than half their spell levels. But I haven't forgotten what franchise I'm playing, and I'm not going to let my guard down. There have been some interesting encounters and innovations so far, and I look forward to seeing what develops further down the dungeon.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wizardry V: All I Want for Christmas is Two Front Ranks


The new party. Totally evil except for the samurai.


If anyone's thinking about playing Pool of Radiance in the near future, here's a way to make it awesome: an all-mage party. Think about it. Fighters have basically one thing to do, but mages have a host of options. You'd get to try out all the spells that no one ever tries because "fireball" is too useful to waste a slot memorizing "slow." The opening stages would be a major challenge, sure, but imagine how rewarding it would be. What's that I hear? "What about healing spells?" Boo-hoo. Bring along a cleric NPC. Or, better yet, haul your butts back to a temple after every map. Are you worried you won't have enough gold?

I thought about doing this on my play-through, but a) I chickened out, and b) I thought that since I was publicly blogging the game, I had a responsibility to try out all the game's options. But last night, after blogging about Wizardry V, it hit me: the options in this game are pretty much the same as in the first four games. Essentially, I'm replaying the same game for the fifth time. Given that, I can go hog-wild.

Well, no I can't. The game has that stubborn restriction by which only the first three characters can fight, and they're always right up-front in combat. If you had an all-mage party, the first three characters would get slaughtered. If you had an all-fighter party, the last three would have nothing to do. And this, my friends, is one example of why the Wizardry series' lack of evolution is not representative of some kind of raw purity. You don't even have to go to iconographic (thanks, JS) games like Pool of Radiance to get some slightly better tactics. The Bard's Tale II introduced distances and missile weapons. Might & Magic assigns which characters can fight based on the shape of the combat terrain. The only virtues I find in Wizardry V's throwback system are the challenges associated with permanent death, limited saves, and limited spell restoration. But the combat mechanics are too primitive to allow me to do anything creative with character classes.

Still, after suffering a full-party death last night, I decided to do something different and adventure with an evil party. Partly, I wanted to try out a ninja, and you have to be evil for that. Unfortunately, the minimum stats for a ninja require at least 40 bonus points during character creation, and although I hit that once yesterday, today the highest I got was 28. So I settled for a high-scoring thief who hopefully I can upgrade to ninja later.

This time, while rolling new characters, I kept tally of the bonus pools, and a curious pattern emerged. These were the figures out of 125 rolls:

Score Appearances
7 30
8 33
9 21
10 27
17 1
18 5
19 2
20 5
28 1

What do you suppose the underlying programming is here? My guess is that the game selects a random base score of 7-10 and then, about 10% of the time, adds 10 to that total and then, maybe another 10% of the time, adds an additional 10, and so on. That would partly explain why there are no scores between 11 and 16 or between 21 and 26. The variances within the groupings (e.g., 21 occurrences of 9 but 33 of 8) seems higher than you would expect by random chance, but a chi-square test tells me that the significance level associated with that is 0.42. We'd need less than 0.05 in my profession to call it statistically significant; I'm not sure what the standard for CPRGs is.

If you're wondering if I'm going on about measures of statistical significance because I wasted the entire evening creating a party again, have no fear. I eventually did get a decent group and headed out into the dungeon. This time around, I did something probably against my rules and backed up the save file. I'm not going to keep backing it up, but I also wasn't going to start over again from scratch if I lost the party it took me 2 hours to create within the first 12 minutes.


This is my favorite foe so far. High reward, low risk.


I didn't, in any event. Only suffering a few character deaths, requiring me to raise them, I managed to get my part up to levels 4 and 5, which is enough to explore the first dungeon level without too much fear. The problem is, I'm a bit stuck. This is the map I've created so far:


I tried an RPG mapping application, but I didn't like it as much as Excel.


The DUMAPIC spell helped me figure out the coordinates, and so far the dungeon is at least 25 x 30, but with---as you can see--lots of blank space. I've encountered four locked doors that seem to require keys, a temple where they say I need an orb to enter, and an area that I'm scared to enter because it says not to when "the motor is on" (the "motor room" to the north is one of the locked doors).


You don't mess with this kind of thing in permanent death games.


There's a transportation chamber that requires a "token" and a weird message that I can't yet interpret. Overall, I feel a bit like I'm in an adventure game where I'm lacking the one item that will open the door that will get me the succession of other items.


Any ideas on this?


I suspect the solution lies in the INSPECT command, which has the option to search for "hidden objects." So I'm going to retrace my steps and inspect every damned square. This is not a welcome addition to the game.

A few notes:

  • Either the game does not have fixed encounters, or it remembers that you already defeated them. I've yet to encounter monsters in the same square repeatedly.
  • Unlike Wizardry I, you don't lose attributes when leveling; you only gain.


This is a very satisfying process.


  • The game may scale the encounters. I started encountering multiple groups when I reached level 3.
  • My thief is a lot more successful at disarming traps than in previous Wizardrys.
  • Like The Bard's Tale, thieves have a "hide" option that, if successful, allows them to "ambush" opponents on the next round. Unfortunately, I'm not successful that option.



This was not a common message in the first Wizardry.


Let's see if I can get Level 1 finished off by my next posting.



Wisp Bastards

Just a quick note that my list of most annoying CRPG enemies has been updated with a new entry on wisps (both Ultima V and Oblivion). I said I was going to do that three months ago, but I've been running a bit behind.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wizardry V: Home for the Holidays



Yeah...I'm pretty sure those are bats.


I made fun of Wizardry V when I first started playing it, but now I confess to a certain gratitude for its unchanging nature. It's like coming back to the old neighborhood, or listening to a song that was your favorite decades ago. By periodically revisiting something that hasn't changed, you have a useful lens with which to analyze what has changed. Who hasn't had the experience of returning to the house we grew up in, or an old school, and noticing how smaller everything looks? Or popping in a mix tape you made in 1987 and chuckling at how idealistic and naïve you were then? The Wizardry experience allows me to reflect both on how much the genre has changed and on how much I've changed as a player.

These thoughts motivated me to go back and take a look at my original postings on Wizardry almost two years ago. I generally try to avoid reading anything--on the blog and off--that I wrote more than a day previously. It always embarrasses me with my inexperience and lack of wisdom. In this case, though, I thought it was important to recollect what I originally thought of the game. The first thing I noted was how awful I was at using Blogger back then. For god's sake, I wasn't even center-justifying captions--and I clearly hadn't learned how to use DOSBox's internal image capture yet. Christ.

It was shortly after the beginning of my grand CRPG odyssey, and I had just come off a four-month period of playing Rogue almost non-stop. I blew through a couple easy, quick games, but Wizardry was the first game that had any real depth and length to it. (I'm not sure that I gave enough credit to it, really, for its major innovations: multiple characters, a large dungeon for the time full of special encounters, a sophisticated magic system.) In the postings, I toyed with the idea of quitting prematurely after a few moments of frustration, but I can't believe I seriously contemplated it. At the time, I hadn't stopped playing a winnable game before winning, so I must have been reluctant to break that record.

On the other hand, I'm amazed by how much patience I had. I remember now how many times I had to create characters, only to have them die; how many resurrections went wrong and turned my Level 6 characters to ash; how many full-party deaths I suffered. I remember maintaining a roster three times as large as the party size, rotating among them, just so I'd have relief members to rescue parties that died in the dungeon. I completely restarted the game three or four times, including one time in which I had reached the last level. That weekend I spent with my wife watching Lord of the Rings while I slowly leveled up my characters against Murphy's Ghosts stands out vividly. I can't honestly say that I would do that today.

If, back at the beginning, I had any stubbornness about quitting games before winning, I quickly succumbed after several hours of Wizardry II. I still maintain that I had a good reason for it. My adherence to my rules was such that I didn't even create a backup of my characters, so when I suffered a full-party death on the first level, I was faced with the prospect of returning to Wizardry to create new characters, leveling them up in that game, and then starting Wizardry II again. It was far more effort than I was willing to invest, no matter how fanatical my love of CRPGs. But however solid my justification, I had broken my "won" record, and it put me on a slippery slope of bailing on games after satisfying my six hour rule. Wizardry III was the next to fall--on far less justifiable grounds, since it restarts characters at Level 1. Wizard's Crown and The Bard's Tale II similarly became victims of my impatience and frustration.

More recently, I've been feeling bad about this, and I vowed to try harder to avoid quitting, which is why I still list Wizard Wars as an active game despite it being, quite literally, one of the worst CRPGs I've ever played. For perverse reasons I don't understand, I'm determined to not only finish the game but also my walkthrough.

Enough self-reflection. Let's talk about the game. After my initial posting, I spent hours and hours on character creation. I do like the attribute-generation system of the series, which hasn't changed between I and V (excepting IV, which was an oddity in many ways). Instead of randomly rolling scores for strength, I.Q., piety, vitality, agility, and luck, you get a set of standard scores based on your race and then a pool of "bonus" points to spread however you like. As you start out, your character is capable of being nothing; classes become available when you allocate enough bonus points to the right attributes.

The number of bonus points is, it turns out, extremely variable. When I first started rolling up characters, I was getting bonus pools of around 7-10. I figured 10 was the upper limit, and I started rejecting characters with fewer points than that. Just as I'd gotten a slate of 4 or 5 party members together, I suddenly rolled a bonus pool of 18. Knowing that was possible, I immediately dumped my previous characters and started rejecting anything less than 18. Rolls of 18 came along maybe 1 out of every 20, and the process of "re-rolling" isn't as simple as it is in some games where you just keep hitting SPACE or something. In Wizardry V, you have to "create" the character, name him, choose a race, and choose an alignment (there are still no sexes) before you find out what your bonus is going to be. Then, even if you don't like it, you have to put enough points into a statistic to choose a class, choose it, and finally say (n)o, you don't want to keep the character.

Thus, you're looking at about 15 seconds for every "re-roll" and, given the rarity of 18s in the bonuses, about 6 minutes per character. That still doesn't sound so bad, and in around a half hour, I had 5 characters who had started with bonuses of at least 18. Most of them had 16-18 in their primary attributes and still had enough left over for good vitality and dexterity.

Then I rolled a 28.


#@$%.


It turns out that bonus rolls of much higher than 18 are possible, but extremely rare. Once I realized that...well, let's just say that practically an entire RPG-playing day passed in the character creation process. I think my highest was 43. But, at last, I had a party of mixed races, classes, and alignments with very high attribute scores among them. I went to add them to my roster and start adventuring.

I had forgotten that good and evil characters can't adventure together in the same party.

#@$%.

A couple more hours of rolling, and I had a good-and-neutral party. I finally gave up and accepted some bonus rolls of 18-20, but in the end I felt I had a solid group.


Until they started to die.


What I had forgotten during this lengthy and obsessive process of character creation is how notoriously lethal Wizardry dungeons are. High attributes make them easier but not easy, and if I'd spent any time remembering my previous postings before I started playing, I would have realized that I'd be creating new characters constantly, especially during the opening stages. You will recall, of course, that full-party death in a Wizardry game does not mean that you can frantically quit and reload from your last save point. Uh-uh. Your party's corpses remain strewn across the dungeon floor, permanently dead, until a relief party can retrieve and raise them.


The game lies. There is no cemetery.


Thus, my current party is only mediocre, attribute-wise, but I'm using them to get accustomed to the dungeon, re-acquainted with the game dynamics, and current with the changes between the first installments and V.

Story-wise, Wizardry V seems to ignore IV; at least, the manual makes no mention of Werdna's return or any of the possible five endings of the previous game. We're back in Llylgamyn, the kingdom that I would have saved in III if I hadn't quit. There was a time of peace and learning following the restoration of the Orb of Earithin, but now a renegade female mage named "The Sorn" has decided that she wants to end the universe and she's created an "unnatural, magical vortex" deep in a dungeon called the Maelstrom. In it, she's imprisoned the Gatekeeper, a demi-god who's the only being able to stop her. The sages of Llylgamyn want my party to get advice from G'bli Gedook, a high priest on the first level of the dungeon, then descend into the depths, kill The Sorn, and free the Gatekeeper.

At this point, I've only explored a bit of the first level, and I haven't found G'bli Gedook yet. I can report with confidence that Wizardry V has not restricted itself to 15 x 15 maps. Even accounting for the possibility that the maps double-back on themselves like in I, they're at least 25 x 25. There also seem to be a lot more "dead" squares in this game, although I'm not completely convinced I'm searching for secret doors effectively. In I-III, you just "kicked" the wall where you suspected one would be, but this game has an "inspect" option, and I'm not sure if finding things is automatic or based upon luck or character skill. I'm also encountering a lot of locked doors resistant to bashing.


I've used this multiple times, but I've yet to find anything.


I can also report that thieves seem to have a new "hide in shadows" ability, and my thief has actually been reasonably successful at disarming traps.


In the first Wizardry, this was the most terrifying part of the game.


By tomorrow, I'm hoping to finish mapping level 1 and perhaps stabilize my party at character levels 3 or 4. By then, I should have a stronger grasp on what's changed. My long winter break started a bit later then I'd hoped, but I'm finally home for good, and it's nice to have a challenging dungeon crawl to play by the fire.