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ToEE: Tentative CRPG/Board Game Comparison

Although it took me a while to figure out how to activate the level-up interface, my party is level 2 now. I’ve also found a second exit to the complex underneath the moat house, though a pentagonal room with a large pentagram built into the floor. I’m starting to think that the moat house is the Temple of Elemental Evil, or at least that the moat house is a disguise built over one of its entrances, like the innocent-looking phone booths that conceal the entrances to CONTROL and the Ministry of Magic. Maybe the mission to clear out the moat house will take the entire rest of the adventure, like finding the map in Curses. I could be wrong — there’s still nothing particularly elemental about the place, so it could just be one of those random dungeons that litters the world of Greyhawk, devoid of context or history. But either way, those bandits were taking their lives in their hands by using it as their hideout. It was only a matter time before the ogre or the gnolls living below their feet decided to go hunting, and found some prey very close at hand.

I started playing this game to compare it to my experiences with the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System board game, and for the most part, the two games haven’t had any similarity at all. I mean, they’re not even in the same campaign setting. The board game version is set in the Forgotten Realms instead of Greyhawk, and substitutes the town of Red Larch for the village of Hommlet. Presumably someone involved in the board game’s creation felt it would be better to stick with the setting that’s more familiar to most players. The final boss of the original seems to be a demon — at least, a demon has been mentioned as part of the backstory — while in the board game, it was a dragon. Perhaps this change was made to placate anxious parents, D&D having a rocky history with satanic panics. Or perhaps it was just an excuse to ship the game with a dragon mini in the box. Who knows?

And, of course, the board game gave us elemental stuff from the get-go. The CRPG has been remarkably reluctant to fulfill the promise of its title. The idea of an adventure themed around elemental magic was the main appeal of the game to me, when I picked it up back in the day, but so far it’s just been Undistinguished Fantasy Village Adventure. Of course, the mechanics of the board game kind of forced things in that regard. There, monsters are drawn from a deck of cards, and apart from some gradual modification by adding adding tougher monsters over the course of the campaign, it’s the same deck no matter what dungeon you’re exploring. The result is that you don’t get thematically-appropriate monsters like giant frogs in the swampy areas and skeletons on the old battlefield. You get a mix of cultists, gnolls, hobgoblins, doppelgangers, and firebats no matter where you are.

And the deeper reaches of the moat house are starting to remind me of that, as things start to turn into the mischmasch dungeon that formed almost the entirety of the board game. Particularly when I run into a familiar monster, like the Gnoll Archers that caused us so much trouble before.

While I’m talking about the board game, there’s one other semi-coincidence I’d like to note. The CRPG allows you to bring a maximum of five characters in your initial party. (Three additional slots are reserved for any NPCs you pick up.) For simplicity’s sake, I initially created a party of the four basic D&D character types: fighter, wizard, cleric, thief. After my initial failures, I decided to fill the fifth slot with another fighter-type, but for variety’s sake, I made this one a Ranger. It took me a matter of days to realize that I had recreated the board game’s party roster.

ToEE: Once more unto the moat house!

The problem with just doing town quests is that they don’t yield any XP.1[29 September] This turns out to be false. Some town quests yield XP, others do not. The rewards tend to be either goods or services, or even just discounts on future purchases. In one case, the armorer who refuses to sell you masterwork items until you slay a giant, it isn’t even a discount; it’s just an opportunity to spend more money. And so, despite a couple of quests that took me outside into monsterland, my party is still level 1.

I’ve taken them out to the moat house again anyway, largely on the strength of a couple of level 2 NPCs helping me out. As in Wizardry, this makes a big difference. I’ve actually survived the bandits, and now I’m getting killed by the slimes and zombies in the dungeon underneath. I’m guessing that this is where you find out that the Elemental Evil cult, previously thought wiped out at the Battle of Emridy Meadows ten years ago, is still active. I’m not at that point yet, though. I’m taking it slow. After every successful fight, I’m heading back to town to rest up and heal, and sell any loot. In other words, I’m using the same approach that Wizardry demanded. But somehow, it feels more wrong here than in Wizardry. ToEE is a bit less of an abstract set of rules and a bit more like a world. When I take a day-long break in the middle of clearing out a dungeon, and find it completely unchanged on my return, it feels like I’m exploiting a flaw. But it also feels necessary.

I’m a little surprised that Wizardry is the game comparison that keeps coming to mind, because the presentation is more like Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity: third-person view with isometric perspective, finely-detailed bitmap backgrounds with 3D human and monsters, combat mode only slightly separated from exploration, no obvious grid. The 3.5e combat rules are really designed for playing on a grid, but if there is one here, it’s obscured. There are a whole lot of games in this vein, and the only immediately obvious way that ToEE deviates from the formula is that combat is always turn-based. But take a step back, and it looks more old-school than any of them. Which makes sense, considering its source material.

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1. [29 September] This turns out to be false. Some town quests yield XP, others do not.

ToEE: The Village of Hommlet

My last session was spent mostly futzing around in Hommlet, looking for side-quests. I found quite a few, even including a couple of combat-oriented ones. A woodcutter wants me to drive giant spiders out of a grove of deku trees1[28 Sep]Correction: deklo, not deku. The Zelda connection is broken., which I thought were more of a Zelda thing than a D&D thing. That was fairly simple, but there’s an armorer who wants me to prove my worth by bringing him the head of a giant. I’ve actually found a giant — specifically, a hill giant, the least of the giant races — minding his own business off in the skeleton-haunted battlefield where the Circle of Eight defeated the Elemental Evils in their last go-round. It’s going to be a while before I pose a threat to him, though. These side-quests are not necessarily things you can do right away.

In fact, that seems to apply to the non-combat quests as well. One person has a sick child that can only be cured with a Heal spell, which requires either an 11th level cleric or a fairly expensive magic item. Another wants to join the town guard, but they won’t let him, for no very good reason. I talk to the person in charge, using my highest-charisma character, but he simply refuses. What do I do about this? Look for another side quest, I suppose. The “talk to the guard boss” quest is still in the quest log, and will remain there until I chance on something capable of changing his mind.

The law-and-order enthusiasts of Church of St. Cuthbert are in quite a lot of the quests, as either a consumer of goods or a source of drama. In the pagan setting of the World of Greyhawk, the Cuthbertites are an obvious stand-in for Christianity, a relatively new faith with an emphasis on proselytizing and conversion, and not everyone in Hommlet likes them, even if they did save the village from a demon some years ago. There’s been some suggestion that they’re more interested in collecting tithes and asserting their authority than in doing real good. They’re definitely guilty of the crime of being uncomfortably pushy. In a more morally-murky campaign setting, like Planescape or Shadowrun, this would be enough to flag them as potential enemies, but here? However imperfect their judgment as individuals, I know that their hearts are Lawful Good. Evil has its own temple. It’s nearby, but outside city limits.

It’s been observed that the implied world-view D&D isn’t particularly medieval, and owes at least as much to the tropes of the Western as it does to fantasy literature. Hommlet definitely fits this thesis: it’s your basic frontier town, a minimal self-sufficient community where everyone has a job directly involved in keeping the town running, except for some suspicious outsiders down at the saloon. Perhaps this is why I’m so instinctively distrustful of self-proclaimed authorities like the Church of St. Cuthbert. They violate the ethos of rugged individualism.

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1. [28 Sep]Correction: deklo, not deku. The Zelda connection is broken.

ToEE: Impatience to Get Started

I’ve given the CRPG version of Temple of Elemental Evil another go. I had really expected to be further along by now, but I’ve been stuck in the very beginning, suffering a series of Total Party Kills in the game’s first real mission. Most of my attempts have gone like this:

1. I start a new game with a Good-aligned party. Apparently the alignment of your party affects how you get drawn into the scenario. Good parties get involved by witnessing a murder; there’s a brief bit of combat against the murderer, after which you discover the victim to be a cleric from the picturesque stone-and-thatch village of Hommlet.

2. I go to Hommlet to deliver news of the murder to the church of St. Cuthbert. This is clear on the opposite side of the map from your starting position, so I pass by a number of farmers, tradesmen, and merchants along the way, some of whom I can talk to. I’d call them distractions, but they’re frankly not very interesting distractions, so I quickly lose patience with them and make a beeline for the church.

3. The head cleric gives me a quest to clear out some bandits holed up in an abandoned moat house out in a nearby swamp.

4. On the path to the moat house, I’m bushwhacked by giant frogs, which eat my party. I’ll say this: the game doesn’t waste your time with vanilla stuff like kobolds. It goes straight for the monsters with special combat moves, specifically, a tongue-based grapple with a possibility of halflings getting swallowed whole.

I did manage to kill the frogs once, but wound up so hurt and spell-depleted that I decided to pitch camp and recover before proceeding any further, just like I would in the Gold Box games. During the night, bandits came and finished me off.

You can only go through so many identical failures before you start to wonder if there’s a better approach. Maybe stealth? I switched the party’s rogue into Sneak mode and sent her along the path alone, and successfully reached the moat house without incident. And the rules of the game are such that when you reach a door from one map to another, the entire party goes through as a unit, even if only one party member is anywhere near the door. Sneaking everyone into the moat house this way felt like a cheat, but at least I got killed by bandits before I could feel too bad about it.

Since fighting the bandits is the whole point of the mission, I don’t think I’ll be sneaking my way past that part. So I’m just resigning myself to the fact that I’m not ready for the moat house yet, and that, despite my impatience to see some elemental evils, I’m going to have to spend some time talking to those boring rustics first, looking for side-quests and probably picking up a hireling or two. It turns out that the generic fantasy tavern has multiple opportunities of this sort. I guess I should have gone there first, on the basis of cliché, but the story was doing a much better job of driving me towards the moat house. (It turns out you can get that quest from multiple people, even.)

It strikes me that my impatience is partly based on the idea that fight scenes are the meat of D&D. You go and create these highly combat-specialized characters, and you’re champing at the bit to put them through their paces, then the game puts all this town in the way. But wait, isn’t a fight scene the very first thing that happens? Before you get to Hommlet, you take down that murderer in combat mode. That’s way too little to satisfy, though, as either ludic challenge or as power fantasy. It may even increase my impatience.

Temple of Elemental Evil (CRPG)

Playing the Temple of Elemental Evil board game has made me curious about the original. The 2003 computer adaptation by Troika Games, who would go on to make the beloved Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, is on my Stack, so I reinstalled it and gave it a try last night.

I remember shelving this the first time around because it demanded so much attention, and required so many decisions, for so little result. This game is allegedly the most faithful CRPG representation of the 3.5e D&D ruleset ever, and, while that’s the version of D&D I’m most familiar with, I have to admit that it’s a bit of slog to get started in, with its excessively elaborate character creation system. ToEE pares down some of the lists of skills and gods and such into something more manageable, but it’s still quite a lot to get through, and, unlike a player of regular D&D, you do it for every character in your party. And then, once you get into the game proper and think you’re done with decisions like that for a while, a stranger on the road offers his services as a hireling, for an up-front fee plus a half-share of the loot. This happens before you even reach the person who assigns you your first mission, and it proved a breaking point for me back then.

I should note that the game does come with a number of pre-generated characters, and that going through the whole character generation process instead of just picking them out of a list was my decision — as was going through the “advanced” version of character creation when possible, doing stats by point-buy instead of rolling and so forth. What can I say? I wanted the full experience. But now that I’ve gone through that once, I think I’ll be picking premades for my next party. And there will be a next party; my first party suffered a TPK on its first mission, slaughtered by a mix of bandits and giant frogs while I was still trying to master the command UI.

That’s the game’s biggest peculiarity, the UI. Movement and obvious actions (opening a door, talking to a friendly NPC, using your default attack on an enemy, etc) is done through left-clicking, as you’d expect. Anything else, the whole panoply of spells and special abilities and nonstandard combat actions that 3.5e supports, is done through a a system of hierarchical menus, displayed radially. This just looks weird, and takes some getting used to. I guess it’s functionally not all that different from a normal drop-down menu, but it’s not always obvious where a particular action fits in the hierarchy. Also, there are a few non-obvious wrinkles, like spontaneous casting for clerics. See, in 3.5e, clerics can cast any spell they’ve prepared, no matter what it is, as a “cure wounds” spell of the same level instead (or “inflict wounds” for evil clerics). How do you do this in the UI? It turns out you hold down the shift key while selecting it from the menu. This helpfully changes all spells listed in the menu into the appropriate “cure” spell, but it isn’t very discoverable. Fortunately, there’s documentation. Unfortunately, the documentation rivals an actual D&D manual in thickness, so things aren’t very discoverable there either. I have the feeling I’ll be making discoveries about things I could have been doing all along for some time.

Temple of Elemental Evil (Board Game)

Now, after we finished Pandemic Legacy, my team decided that we liked getting together for board games every Tuesday enough to keep on doing it. But what to play? You can’t really do Pandemic Legacy twice; even if you started with a fresh board, the experience would be completely different when you know what to expect. And, despite “Legacy” being a hot buzzword in the board game world, there aren’t a lot of good substitutes. I feel like co-op is a must for this group — we tried some competitive games, and it altered the vibe in the room for the worse. And we wanted a campaign mode that lasts for multiple sessions if possible. I asked around, and none other than veteran board game designer Kevin Wilson (an online acquaintance via IF) suggested Temple of Elemental Evil, a board game adaptation of the classic D&D module, fourth in the “D&D Adventure System” line. I have since learned that Kevin is the designer of the soon-to-be-released fifth Adventure System game, Tomb of Annihilation, which makes his recommendation seem a little bit self-serving, but what could he do? ToA hadn’t been announced yet at the time, so he wasn’t at liberty to say why ToEE sprang to mind.

Before describing the game, I have to admit a twofold ignorance of where it’s coming from: I’ve never played the original Temple of Elemental Evil adventure, nor any of the previous D&D Adventure System board games. I’d played the very beginning of the 2003 CRPG adaptation of ToEE, but really no more than the introductory UI tutorial. So I was basically unfamiliar with the whole thing going in, except to the extent that I know D&D.

So, the basics: This is essentially a roguelike done by hand. It comes in an impressively large box, which is mainly filled with well-made plastic miniatures, including one dragon. The game’s campaign mode consists of a sequence of 13 scenarios. In most scenarios, your goal involves finding and killing a “Villain”, which is to say, a boss monster that appears after you’ve explored enough. Even if there’s another goal, like rescuing captives or retrieving a powerful artifact, there tends to be a Villain trying to stop you. Three of the adventures, to provide a bit of variety, are set in the town of Red Larch. The other ten, regardless of where the story says they take place, are set in a randomized dungeon, constructed on the fly from a deck of tiles. On every turn, after you take your actions (moving, attacking monsters, disabling traps), if you’re at an unexplored edge of a tile, you draw the top tile from the deck and place it at that edge. Usually the tile has from one to three spots to place monsters, which are also randomized, using a deck of monster cards. Note that, because this happens after you’re done with your actions, the monsters always get to attack you before you can attack them — an advantage that they sorely need, because so many of them can be killed with a single blow.

If you don’t explore a new tile on your turn — and sometimes even if you do — you instead draw a card from the “Encounter” deck. “Encounter” sounds innocuous, but most of the cards are things like “Roll to attack yourself for at +8, take 2 damage on hit, 1 on miss” or “Either discard a Treasure card or take 1 damage for every Treasure card you have” or “Place a Rage of Imix token on your current tile, then do 2 damage to everyone on a tile with a Rage of Imix token”. There are a few beneficial encounters, but they always have a “Draw another encounter card” clause at the end to make sure you keep getting hurt. It turns out that it’s these Encounters, not the monsters, that are the primary threat in the game, slowly whittling down your hit points while you wait for the Villain to show up. In a normal dungeon crawl, you’d take care to kill every monster before exploring further, lest you find yourself overwhelmed. Here, that approach just means death by a thousand cuts from the Encounter cards. Avoiding Encounters by charging ahead and revealing a new tile every single turn is still usually unwise, mind you. There’s a balance to be found.

One other thing tilts this balance: when you get an encounter that you really don’t want, you can skip it by paying five experience points. That’s a good reason to favor exploring and getting more monsters over not exploring and getting more encounters, because slain monsters are the source of experience points. Mind you, that’s the only thing they have in common with experience points in regular D&D. XP here is a shared resource, doesn’t persist across adventures, and isn’t used for character advancement. Skipping encounters is the only use for XP. Character upgrades are purchased with gold — which is kind of a throwback to the original D&D, where gold and XP were more or less equivalent. This is but one example of the game’s unfortunate tendency to use D&D terminology with completely different meanings, often unintuitive ones. “Encounter” is another.

The most Legacy-ish part of the game is that at the end of each adventure, you make scenario-specific alterations to the monster, treasure, and/or encounter decks, shuffling in more powerful monsters and worse encounters as you advance through the campaign, replacing the Fire Cutists with Empowered Fire Cultists that use the same miniatures and so forth. If you complete an adventure without using any healing surges — which work completely differently than in D&D — then the system assumes that things are too easy for you and the difficult stuff needs to be added sooner.

Monsters are controlled by behavior algorithms printed on their card, organized as a list of cases, like a Lisp “cond” statement, with the conditions boldfaced: “If this monster is within 1 tile of a hero, it moves adjacent to the closest hero and attacks that hero with a wicked slam. Otherwise, this monster moves 1 tile towards the closest hero.” The most complex algorithms belong to the Villains, which tend to have multiple conditionally-executed attack routines, like a boss in a shooter. For example, the Air Elemental villain has both a ranged “Blast of Wind” attack and a short-range area-of-effect “Whirlwind” attack that pushes you away when you get too close.

Unfortunately, these elaborate routines are kind of wasted. In our group, at least, we tended to dogpile on the Villains the moment they appeared, with the result that they seldom lived long enough to use the full range of their abilities, especially as the campaign went on and the heroes grew in power. There’s a Salamander weaponsmith Villain whose big threat is that he can activate other monsters out of turn, giving them more attacks; when we fought him, he never had the opportunity to do this. There’s an adventure where you have to keep a bunch of freed prisoners safe from an Elemental boss while they make for the exit; the Elemental never got close enough to the prisoners to be a threat. The height of this trend was Adventure 11, when you first encounter the dragon. This is one of the three town adventures, the idea being that the dragon is attacking Red Larch and has to be driven back into its lair. (This basically means killing it; it just escapes in a cutscene so it can come back later). The town map has villagers scattered around, and the scenario adds a special “Rescue Villager” action that removes them from the board so the dragon can’t hurt them, so I suppose the intention here is that you’d spend most of your time running around rescuing people while the dragon wreaks havoc. My team didn’t bother with this. It was obvious to us that the best way to keep the villagers from harm was to just kill the dragon as quickly as possible. We managed it in three turns. One of our players was out sick that day, and it’s just as well, because if we’d had four players, someone wouldn’t have gotten to play at all. I compared it at the time to one of those high-powered prizefights where people pay thousands of dollars for a ringside seat, only for the fight to be over in three minutes. Putting a dragon mini in the box creates a sense of anticipation that heightens the anticlimax. The second dragon encounter, in Adventure 13, was much more satisfying, because we had to go through a dungeon and get softened up by Encounters and Empowered Cultists first.

Unlike Pandemic Legacy, it’s easy to reset the game to its initial state and go through the campaign again. I won’t be doing that, satisfying though it was to go through once. One member of the team has already cannibalized the minis for use in real D&D. I’m told that this is a big part of the appeal of the Adventure System games, and that some people just buy the sets for the minis and the tiles rather than for the game. Supposedly ToEE is particularly valuable for this, because you can never have too many distinct types of human figure, and ToEE gives you four different types of cultists in addition to the heroes. Villagers and prisoners, on the other hand, are represented by circular cardboard tokens rather than minis, which seems a little strange when I think about it. Why this distinction? They all have stats and a position on the board, just like the monsters and heroes.

Pandemic Legacy: Campaign Report

Last November, I mentioned a Pandemic Legacy campaign I was participating in. We finished back in January. I want to say a few more words about how that went before the release of Pandemic Legacy Season 2, expected sometime soon. There will be spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, just take my word for it that it’s an amazing game and well worth playing.

One of the first things you do in Pandemic Legacy is give names to your characters. Vanilla Pandemic doesn’t have this step; it doesn’t have characters, really, just jobs, each with their own special power: the Medic’s efficiency at treating infections, the Dispatcher’s ability to move other player’s pawns, and so on. If you play two games of Pandemic using the Researcher role, there’s no particular reason, apart perhaps from the art on the card, to think of the Researcher as the same person in both games. Whereas Pandemic Legacy demands it. This is an ongoing story that persists from session to session, with continuity at the mechanical level, and your team of disease-fighters are the characters in that story. But it’s with the act of naming the characters that the game communicates: This is your story.

And that was enough to get us to spontaneously invent extraneous details. The Dispatcher’s portrait, declares one player, makes him look like a K-pop idol — and so that’s what he was, before he gave up his career to fight diseases. His stage name is LUSH, and that’s the only name we know him by. It’s easy to imagine the scene: conservatively-dressed WHO officers waiting for him backstage at a concert. “The world needs you,” they tell him. “You have this incredible ability to get people moving.” In addition, he’s secret boyfriends with the medic, Lt. Jeremy. In February — recall that the campaign is divided into months — the game introduces a “relationship” mechanic, which is no surprise, as the character cards have a space specifically reserved for relationship stickers. LUSH and Jeremy don’t get a relationship that’s acknowledged in this sense, but our story is flexible enough to accommodate that: clearly it’s because it’s a secret relationship.

Still, the game has its own story, too, told through the Legacy deck, which has some variability through player decisions or random factors, but which is pre-established in all but the particulars, and told mainly through rule changes. Halfway through the very first session, one of the diseases mutates and becomes incurable. This disease is named “COdA”. (The other diseases, you get to name yourself. This provided some amusement, but didn’t inspire as much fabulation as the character names.) In a way, having an uncurable disease makes things easier, because if you can’t cure it, you don’t have to. You have three diseases to cure instead of four. However, COdA gets more troublesome and dangerous as the game advances, and the problems of managing it and limiting its spread become the focus of your efforts.

Probably the single moment that has the most effect on a campaign is the determination of which disease mutates into COdA. This is semi-randomized: COdA is whatever disease has the greatest presence on the board when the mutation occurs. In our campaign, it was the blue disease, which is native to North America and Western Europe. Your default starting location is Atlanta, home of the CDC, right in the heart of blue territory. Fortunately, once you’ve established a permanent research station somewhere else (where “permanent” means “persisting between sessions”), you can start there instead. Karachi was our home base for most of the campaign, and the First World was largely left to rot once we managed to wall it off with permanent roadblocks, including a dense wall down the middle of Europe that we nicknamed the “iron curtain”. By the end, New York and Chicago had been completely destroyed. Miami, which is far enough south to be yellow rather than blue, stayed miraculously untouched for most of the campaign, even though COdA spread to South America early on. It became a point of pride for us to keep Miami pristine, a shining beacon of hope in a ravaged landscape. That it did finally receive some damage toward the very end of the campaign was a source of some frustration for us.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the evolution of COdA ends up where it does, but I found it disappointing nonetheless. I refer to its ultimate mutation into the zombie virus. Oh, sure, they’re not zombie zombies. The “Faded”, as they’re called, are living people with a disease, and the in-game text describes them as developing transparent skin and musculature, like a living anatomical model. That’s clever and thematic, at least, but it’s not fooling anyone. They’re obviously zombies, and Faded presence in a city is represented by little plastic zombie figurines instead of the abstract colored cubes of other infections. Partly I find this disappointing because it’s an unwelcome intrusion of gaming cliché into a hitherto fairly original milieu. Partly because it adds an element of violence to what had previously been entirely about cooperating to save lives. And that’s violence in both directions. Faded attack you if you stay in a city with them. And since the Faded figurines aren’t infection cubes, you can’t remove them with the “treat infection” action, but instead, shortly after the Faded are introduced, you get a new character, the Colonel, who has the power to remove Faded figures. The one thing I like about this is that it doesn’t go into detail about how he does this. It doesn’t need to. This is storytelling through game mechanics. It’s probably worth mentioning that the player on my team who was most eager to play the Colonel was the one who had previously mostly played the Medic. Opposites, yes, but both geared towards clearing things off the board.

Once you’ve got a zombie plague in a game, the obvious place for the plot to go next is the revelation that it was deliberately engineered. In fact, this is such an obvious development that we had already worked it into our personal side-storytelling before the zombies even appeared. In our first session, we used the Scientist character, Dr. Pang, whose special power is that she uses one fewer card than normal to find cures. We didn’t use her for several sessions after that, though — you get to choose whatever characters you want at the start of each session, and we had more pressing needs. Our joke explanation for her absence that she was secretly an agent of the organization that engineered COdA. She had infiltrated our group in order to oversee its successful deployment, and once that was done, she had no reason to stick around. We started using her again about halfway through the year, because we had given one of the four diseases enough beneficial mutations that it could be cured with four cards instead of five — which meant that Dr. Pang could cure it with a mere three, a very significant improvement. Since this coincided with the Faded appearing, our in-fiction explanation was that she only then understood the extent of what her secret masters had been planning, and came back to us to atone for her crimes.

At any rate, the upshot is that when we got to the point in the game’s story where the truth comes out about COdA’s origins, it wasn’t as impressive as it was probably supposed to be. Some of my teammates were amazed that our prediction had come true, but like I said, I thought it was a fairly obvious direction for the story to go. There’s something of a text dump on the cards that reveal it all. The villains are apparently a secretive group within the military called “Zodiac”, with members taking on various zodiac signs as aliases. But these details are so inconsequential to the game that by the time we reached the second mention of Zodiac, several sessions later, I had forgotten who they were. If you want me to remember something, make a rule about it! The one mechanical effect of the Zodiac revelation was that one of your characters is suddenly killed, and can’t be used in future sessions. In our case, it was Dr. Nikki, the Quarantine Specialist. Not the best person to lose, but it could have been worse.

Much of the second half of the campaign revolves around a “search” mechanic. Basically, once you’ve got zombies, COdA stops getting worse, but the players still keep getting upgrades and other incremental benefits. So they throw in searches as a new way to keep you distracted and short on resources. And here, an interesting thing happened: the Soldier, who we had originally ignored as useless, gradually became our MVP. The Soldier has two powers: he can’t be hurt by zombies, and he can pick up Equipment cards from the discard pile as an action. He also has one significant disadvantage: he can’t discover a cure. This is a pretty big disadvantage — you mainly cure diseases with whoever’s lucky enough to draw the right cards, so playing with the Soldier means losing about 1/4 of your cure opportunities. The thing is, Equipment cards are just cards that have had an Equipment sticker stuck on them over the course of the campaign. Usually this is done as an action; when you’re at a Research Center or Military Base, and have an action to spare, you can “equip” an unused equipment sticker by attaching it permanently to a card in your hand, which then counts as both a piece of equipment and as what it was before. When the Soldier first becomes available for use, there simply isn’t a whole lot of equipment in the deck yet. By the end of the campaign, though, there’s a lot. And that means there tends to be a lot of whatever cards are needed to conduct a search sitting in the discard pile with equipment stickers on them.

The game ends very pleasingly: after spending so many sessions struggling to contain COdA, you finally get the means to eradicate it. It’s a more involved process than finding cures for the other diseases, involving picking up limited quantities of vaccine from vaccine factories, but once you’ve vaccinated a city, COdA is gone from there for good. That’s more than you can do for the other diseases; even if you eradicate a non-CoDA disease in one session, it comes back in the next. Being able to make permanent improvements for the better is no small thing in a game that’s generally about things getting worse and worse.

GatEB: End of the Story

With every official hold, it seems, the creators of DROD felt a need to outdo the previous hold’s post-victory component. Gunthro and the Epic Blunder has the familiar locked-until-you-beat-all-the-secret-rooms area, with concept art and bonus puzzles, most of which are harder variations on rooms seen earlier. Some of these rooms aren’t content with just being the most difficult in the game, and add Challenge scrolls on top of that — indeed, there’s one room with two contradictory Challenges, one requiring you to clear the room without using bombs, the other to clear it using only bombs. But the Mastery area isn’t the end of it. The Mastery area contains a scroll (accessible only after solving a couple of tough puzzles) that gives a hint about finding a larger puzzle spread throughout the main game, like the metapuzzle in a puzzle hunt.

Solve this, and you can visit the Spider Cave, an entire additional level of the game. And unlike the kitbashed stuff in the Mastery area, it’s a proper level, with a uniting theme and style. Indeed, it’s more unified than most levels, because in some rooms it pulls the same stunt as level 6 of King Dugan’s Dungeon, repeating room layouts with just enough details changed to make the solutions completely different. Other than that, its main theme is the combination of spiders and shallow water. Spiders are invisible unless you’re close to them or they’re moving, and shallow water makes Gunthro invisible to monsters, so putting the two of them together has the peculiar effect that sometimes neither Gunthro nor the monsters can see each other. I imagine this was probably designed as an introduction to spiders much like the introductions to wraithwings and serpents and so forth, but then cut. As it is, we don’t get a real spider-introduction level, and it would be impossible to just slot this one in, because spiders get used before shallow water becomes available.

Anyway, I’m done with Gunthro, except for the last few Challenges in the Mastery area. Overall impressions: Yes, this is probably the one to start with if you’ve never played DROD. It’s shorter and easier than earlier episodes, but still gets satisfyingly tough towards the end. And I think the puzzles are just better-designed. It doesn’t lean on tactical fiddliness so much, preferring the big “Aha!” moments. This is a big part of why it’s so short: it has less of the filler where you’re battling roaches as fast as they spawn. As a side effect, I think the puzzles here are more memorable — at least, I feel like I recognized more of the rooms, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I played it a few years more recently.

GatEB doesn’t add a lot to the DROD toolkit, though — certainly nowhere near as much as The City Beneath did. In fact, it leaves a fair amount of the essentials out. There are no goblins here; soldiers take their place as the thing that’s a little smarter than roaches. There are no potions of any sort. Instead of mimic and clone potions, we have the horns that summon friendly soldiers and squaddies from offscreen, and instead of invisibility potions, we have the shallow water effect — all of which make things just a little bit more complicated than their potion versions. Most strikingly (and it took me a while to notice this), there is no tarstuff. No tar, no mud, no gel. That’s a pretty big deal, considering how those substances dominated portions of the previous games. And that domination of the experience is why it was probably a good idea to leave them out.

I guess the biggest thing it lacks is resolution. Gunthro and Beethro end their story no closer to the truth than where they started. There’s a boss battle of sorts, where Gunthro pursues the Tuenan captain through another Neather-style dungeon, but it’s a bit like the final boss fight in Metal Gear Solid 2: a phony conflict that the player knows is just a distraction from what’s really going on. And anyway, the Captain just doesn’t have the emotional oomph of a good villain. Even the original Neather, who was barely a character, earned some good villain points by being in control, and then inadvertently giving you an opportunity to wrest that control away from him. The Captain doesn’t have that. He’s as hapless as you.

GatEB: Introductions

Despite being fourth in publication order, Gunthro and the Epic Blunder is meant as an introduction to DROD. And it does a whole lot of introducing — the first sequence of rooms takes care to introduce all the basics, one by one, down to the level of key bindings, even though there’s a separate gameplay tutorial that covers the same things. Then it pretty much follows the DROD model, introducing one new element per level, tutorializing all its behaviors and uses. And, of course, most of the elements it’s introducing are things that the experienced DROD player has seen before.

Not everything, mind you. There are a few new concepts, like horns that you can use to summon allies, either squaddies who you control or Rasarun soldiers who you don’t control but who fight monsters alongside you. But even there, the things that the horns summon aren’t new. Squaddies are just like the clones produced by clone potions in The City Beneath, and Rasarun soldiers are just a color-swap of the Tuenan stalwarts from the same title. (Yes, the Tuenans are allies there, and enemies here.) GatEM gets more mileage out of them, though. As a story about a war, it features soldiers much more. Here, enemy soldiers of the sort introduced in the final level of Journey to Rooted Hold are nearly as common a puzzle element as roaches.

The previous games also introduced elements one by one, of course. The weird thing about GatEB is that it introduces elements in a very different order than the previous games did. It’s not until the third major hub-and-wheel area that Gunthro starts encountering most of the monster types from the first game, such as wraithwings, evil eyes, and serpents. This stuff used to be the very basics of the game, and now it’s being put off until after we’ve seen exotic variants from later episodes like stone golems, rafts, bombs, and the aforementioned soldiers. And I didn’t even notice that they were missing until their return. I have to say, they’re introduced a lot better here than in King Dugan’s Dungeon. Each monster type gets its own mini-dungeon, with at least one room showing how the monster is affected by brains. In previous titles, the brain tutorials were all lumped together when brains are introduced, but here, brains are one of the first monster types you encounter. Basically what’s happening here is that the designers are letting go of the idea that they’re making “King Dugan’s Dungeon, only better” and rethinking how things should be introduced. Possibly it’s the influence of the frogs-and-mice stage of the project.

DROD: Gunthro and the Epic Blunder

In the ending credits of DROD: The City Beneath, Caravel Games announced that they were going to take a break from DROD before starting on the final episode that wraps up the story. Their next game was going to use DROD-like mechanics, but in a different setting. It was to be a story for children, concerning a war between the kingdoms of Frogs and Mice. But at some point they changed their minds and turned the Frogs and Mice game back into a full-on DROD. Thus was Gunthro and the Epic Blunder born.

It fits peculiarly into the canon. It’s not the final episode they had planned — that’s The Second Sky. It’s a story about Beethro’s grandfather Gunthro, as told by Beethro to his nephews, during his retirement following the first game, before he decided to go back underground. Every once in a while, we get Beethro’s narrative voice-over, or an interrupting nephew asking questions. Thus, the game can employ unreliable-narrator metanarrative trickery, much like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. At one point, Gunthro suddenly gains the ability to swim stealthily through shallow water, just because Beethro’s audience thinks it would be cool. And once you get this narrator-granted power, you can go back to previously-visited locations to cross water that was previously impassible.

At another point, there’s a sequence of rooms where you can switch control between Gunthro and some soldiers under his command — it’s essentially the “clone potion” mechanic from TCB but without the potion. One such room can only be solved by locking Gunthro in the room and leaving as one of the squaddies. The game itself doesn’t care which avatar you’re controlling, and doesn’t distinguish them graphically, but one of the nephews notices the inconsistency and complains. Beethro just shrugs it off: “Maybe I got confused”. If I’m not mistaken, TCB also had rooms like this, where you had to leave Beethro’s original body behind and take off with a clone. (And even if it never made this necessary, it definitely made it possible.) But here, there’s this extra layer of fictionality to shield us from the disquieting implications.

Presenting it all as a story told to children also provides cover for any tonal inconsistency resulting from the fact that it was originally designed as a story for children. If such inconsistency exists, that is, which I’m not really sure of. The overall feel of the thing seems pretty storybook-like to me, sort of like Chicken Little with added violence, all very stylized and structurally repetitive. But the world of DROD isn’t a terribly realistic one to begin with, so the only thing that’s really different about this story is that it’s a little less grotesque and nihilistic.

The story up to the point I’m at right now: In the very beginning, Gunthro witnesses the murder of his king, the king of Rasarus, at the hands of a captain from Tueno. (Both Rasarus and Tueno figured into parts of TCB.) He goes to rally the Rasarans to avenge this aggression, which means finding and in some cases rescuing a bunch of leaders and heroes who will be necessary for the offensive, each of whom is in the depths of a different level. This enables a nicely nonlinear hub-and-wheel design that should help beginners to not get stuck. Once you finish with that, you spend a level getting to Tueno, only to find that all the NPCs you had gathered previously have gotten lost in various caves and things, and need to be rescued again, a second hub-and-wheel. That’s as far as I’ve gotten this time around, but I remember that the whole casus belli eventually turns out to be a mistake on Gunthro’s part, and that this epic blunder results in his exile from Rasarus.

Also, it all links up with the Rooted Empire at some point, which is curious. Beethro doesn’t yet know about the Empire at the point when he’s telling the story. But I don’t think the game is really any more concerned with consistency around the story that within it. It’s a mixture of Beethro’s off-the-cuff embellishments with things that really happened, some of which Beethro may not know about.

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