Pool of Radiance: Other UI

I’d like to expand a little on what I said in my last post. What I said about combat mode applies just as well out of it: frequently, just when you think you’ve given the game enough information for it to execute your intentions, it asks for one more key.

For example, consider the act of memorizing spells. This is a (pre-4th edition) D&D game, and, as such, it uses the absurd Jack-Vance-inspired notion that spells have to be re-memorized every time you intend to use them. 1By 3rd edition, D&D was trying to mask the absurdity by replacing “memorize” with the more ambiguous “prepare”. That fixed the conceptual weirdness, but still left the problem that the mechanic itself was unfun and didn’t really fit what we expect of a wizard. So, every time I rest, I go into the spell-selection menu for each spellcaster, and I select “Cure Light Wounds” three times or whatever, and I hit “E” for Exit. But before the game allows me to actually exit, it asks me if the spells I just selected are the ones I want to memorize. 2[Added 5 February 2010]Actually, it’s even worse than I remembered. You have to press E twice. Once to get to the screen showing the spells you’ve selected, and one more time, once you’re there, to bring up the confirmation question. The second one in particular is completely unnecessary. You can do nothing at that screen except bring up the confirmation. It’s as if a Windows app popped up a dialog box saying “Press OK to bring up confirmation dialog”. Why, yes, I do, that is why I chose them. I can see why they did this: the interface that they chose for spell memorization otherwise provides for no way to see what you’ve selected, and no way to undo your choices. Thus does one bad design beget another. Once you’ve chosen the spells to memorize, you have to rest in order to do it. This involves hitting the “R” key twice — hitting it once brings up a menu where you can select how many days, hours, and minutes you want to rest, which is unnecessary detail most of the time, and best skipped unless the player requests it. Mercifully, if you’ve got spells to memorize, it automatically populates this form with the time necessary to memorize spells under the first-edition D&D rules — four hours and fifteen minutes for a level-1 spell, apparently. If your rest is interrupted by a wandering monster, however, it forgets all about what you were trying to memorize and you have to go through the spell-selection process from the start.

At the end of combat, there is loot. Let me switch gears and talk about Final Fantasy for a moment. Some (all?) of the Final Fantasy games prompt you to take loot after a battle. Sometimes it’s presented as an explicit question: Do you want to take this stuff? And it’s always struck me as unnecessary, because you never answer “No”. But it’s always seemed excusable there as providing a modicum of agency: you could turn down free stuff if you wanted to, and that makes it feel a little different from just having it foisted on you. It’s tolerable mainly because all it takes is a press of the default do-thing button, which you already have your thumb on at the time. In Pool of Radiance, you’re expected to press “T” for Take, then choose Money or Item, and then choose the individual moneys or items one by one from a further menu. For money, you get a menu of all the coin types, and have to select the type(s) you want (even if there’s only one type available), and then type in the quantity of that coin you want to take. And again, I can see where they’re coming from. In D&D, unlike in Final Fantasy, your carrying capacity is limited, and even coins have weight. There are definitely situations where you’d want to refrain from picking up a heap of copper pieces. But those are the exceptional cases. What you want to do most of the time (at low levels, at least) is take all the coins of every type. So that should be made easy.

I suppose the underlying problem is that, unlike other early CRPGs, Pool of Radiance wasn’t free to come up with game mechanics that suit the medium. The designers were trying to stay as close to the actual D&D rules as they could, or at least maintain the appearance of doing so. But even taking that into account, the UI here seems more demanding than it needs to be. It’s easy to say that today, with the benefit of more than two decades of usability research and gaming experience behind us, but it suffers even in comparison to its predecessors.

To take one final look at combat mode: I mentioned that there were two ways of selecting targets, “manual” mode, in which you move a cursor around (starting from the fellow doing the targeting), and the default mode, in which you cycle through possible targets with next/previous keys. Manual mode is a lot easier to deal with. You know why? It doesn’t require visual feedback between keypresses. You can look at the screen and say “I want to cast this spell at the guy three squares up and one square to the left”, then type M Up Up Up Left Enter and you’re done. With the cycling targeting, you have to check after each press of N to see whether you’re on the right guy yet or not. They made the cycling targeting system the default. This says to me that they were taking significant pauses between keypresses for granted — which is probably reasonable, given the state of hardware at the time. So is it just by luck that Wizardry and Might and Magic failed to fall into this trap?

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1. By 3rd edition, D&D was trying to mask the absurdity by replacing “memorize” with the more ambiguous “prepare”. That fixed the conceptual weirdness, but still left the problem that the mechanic itself was unfun and didn’t really fit what we expect of a wizard.
2. [Added 5 February 2010]Actually, it’s even worse than I remembered. You have to press E twice. Once to get to the screen showing the spells you’ve selected, and one more time, once you’re there, to bring up the confirmation question. The second one in particular is completely unnecessary. You can do nothing at that screen except bring up the confirmation. It’s as if a Windows app popped up a dialog box saying “Press OK to bring up confirmation dialog”.

1 Comment so far

  1. paul on 11 Feb 2010

    I seem to remember typing “99999” a lot on the how-many-coins-to-pick-up screen, which results in picking up all the coins.

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