Archive for January, 2010

Pool of Radiance: Getting Started

Onward to 1988, when SSI acquired the Dungeons & Dragons license and started churning out what would be called the “Gold Box” games. I know a lot of people have fond memories of these, but my first impression here is of a game that really doesn’t want me to play it.

First, it throws up a deliberate obstacle to running the game at all: key-word copy protection. Every time you start up the game, it needs a word from the code wheel included with the docs; I’ve already made a sheet with equivalent information so I don’t have to go fiddling with the wheel. Then come the perverse UI design decisions. In the PC version, the keys that cycle through vertically-arranged menu options are not the up/down keys, but “home” and “end”. I suppose I see where they were coming from here: you have to be able to select characters while in navigation mode, and up/down already has a meaning there. But, well, other games managed to come up with better solutions. And by “better”, I mean ones that didn’t make me read the manual.

Then there was the matter of file access. At first, the game was incapable of reading or writing saves, and would just get stuck asking me repeatedly to “insert disk for drive D:”. I can’t fully blame the game for this, though: it was because I had run the installer directly from Windows at first, but run the game itself from DOSBox (after finding that it had the same video problems as the other games I’ve played lately — I should probably just assume that anything that runs in EGA mode will be affected.) It turns out that the installer had set up some configuration files with absolute paths in them, which became wrong when I used DOSBox’s virtual drives. This was easily corrected by editing the configuration files, but it took me a while to figure out. Anyway, it’s a problem that the previous games this year didn’t share. They just assumed that whatever directory they were run from was the one they should be using.

Anyway, after a lengthy character creation process (lengthy mostly because of the optional icon customization, which I may describe in more detail later), I got into the game, and went to the part of town labeled “Taverns and Shops” on the map in the manual, hoping to buy some basic equipment — just armor and weapons for each character. But there’s no obvious way to tell whether a given door leads to a shop or to a tavern, so I wound up blundering into the latter before the former. I tried to make a quick exit, but the game wouldn’t let me; I got caught in a tavern brawl that wound up killing my entire party. But even with everyone dead, the brawl continued for a long time, preventing me from doing anything else in the game. I’ve heard stories about terrible dungeon masters who play out battles that don’t involve the players at all, essentially treating the players as a passive audience. If that’s part of the D&D experience, SSI captured it well.

Might and Magic: Au Revoir Varn

It’s that time again. I kind of knew from early on that I wasn’t going to get anywhere near completing Might and Magic in two weeks, but at least I feel like I was making good progress, and would definitely be able to finish it in a finite amount of time without getting particularly bored. Key to this is that it didn’t feel like I was grinding most of the time. Rather, my attention was on the task of mapping, and as long as I remembered to go to an inn to save my progress one in a while, I kept on gaining levels as a side effect more than anything else.

Maybe this will change at higher levels, but so far, the world has been highly conducive to this approach. If it were much larger, mapping it all in detail wouldn’t seem worthwhile, as in the later Ultima games (from 6 onward, in my opinion). If it were much smaller, I’d run out of things to map. Also, it’s an extremely open world. I’ve mapped out a bit less than half of of the world’s surface at this point, and five towns, and a handful of scattered dungeon levels. Most of it was just there to be found, not behind puzzle locks or anything. I mentioned some time ago the concept of “soft walls” — instead of blocking the player from entering areas that you want them to do later, just making it difficult to stay in those areas by means of tougher random encounters. This game is practically made of soft walls. I’m starting to think that the specific combination here, of a large and open world with soft walls, is kind of self-balancing. If I’m trying to explore an area where the monsters are much more powerful than me, I learn this quickly and turn my attentions to a different area. If I’m exploring an area where the monsters are much less powerful than me, I wind up making much faster progress than normal, and thus moving on to a new area sooner.

But I suppose the game can’t stay in that state indefinitely. Eventually, like Alexander, you’d run out of world to conquer. But that’s a story for another time.

Might and Magic: Combat

Combat mode in Might and Magic differs from that in Wizardry in a couple of important respects. For one thing, you don’t set the actions of all your characters at the same time and then watch them play out: instead, actions are immediately executed when chosen, a much easier and more intuitive way of going about things. The Wizardry model inevitably resulted in wasted spells, cast at monsters that had already been killed.

Also significant: no stacks. Each enemy is an individual, and can be targeted individually. Monsters still come in groups, though — an encounter might involve four clerics and six ghouls, for example, but they’re listed as ten creatures, not two stacks. The result can be daunting: it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when the list of monsters takes up three times as many lines on the screen as your party, even though the real consequence of listing them like that is a hard limit, and a rather small one, on the number of individual monsters you can face at a time. I don’t know of any other Wizardry-like RPG that takes this approach — certainly The Bard’s Tale stacks its monsters — so it’s a little ironic to note where the license ultimately went, with stacks containing creatures by the hundred in the Heroes of Might and Magic games.

Now, other games use monster stacks as spell targets, giving you a middle ground between spells that affect one creature and spells that affect all creatures. Lacking stacks, Might and Magic instead takes as its middle ground spells that affect a specific number of monsters, starting with one individual that you select and proceeding down the list from there. This can cross what would otherwise be stack boundaries, but sometimes it’s limited by whether the targets are in melee range or not (that is, whether they’re in what I’ve called the “front row”). Of particular interest is a pair of third-level direct damage spells, Lightning Bolt and Fireball. They have the same mana cost and do the same amount of damage (barring elemental resistance), but Fireball affects five targets and Lightning Bolt only three. The drawback of Fireball is that you can’t use it safely on front-row targets. The manual makes it sound like you can’t use it on the front row at all, and there are certainly other spells like that, which simply fail if given an invalid target. But I know from experience that it is possible to fireball the front row — it just has the consequence that your party is caught in the blast as well. At any rate, the consequnce is that I tend to use Lightning Bolt a lot more, but possibly only because I’ve mainly been exploring the outdoors; Fireball is more useful underground, where the front row tends to be smaller.

The whole concept of front/back row is pretty important in combat. There are a lot of monsters that only have melee attacks. If you can disable the entire front row (say, with a Sleep spell), you can often pick off the ones waiting in the rear in relative safety. But this tactic has become less viable as I’ve gotten further into the game, because (a) most monsters at my level can resist Sleep, (b) more of the powerful monsters have ranged attacks and/or spells, and (c) some monsters are capable of pushing ahead in line when they want to. I don’t know quite what the deal is with point c — maybe all monsters can do this, maybe it only fails when the guy they want to push aside is immobilized for some reason. You can do the same thing with the party, although repositioning a character uses up their action for that round. Early on, I frequently swapped hurt characters to the back row in the middle of combat this way. But this is another thing that’s become less useful over time, as the fighter-types got better armor and the back-row spellcasters didn’t.

Might and Magic: UI

So, let’s talk user interface a bit. Might and Magic is essentially menu-driven, in a pre-GUI way. Nearly all interaction takes the form of single keystrokes, and all the applicable commands in the current context are displayed on the screen. In navigation mode, a big chunk of the screen is devoted to displaying an unvarying list of everything you can do. If the action you select requires you to make further choices, such as which object to use or which monster to attack, further lists will be presented (along with the option to back out and choose a different action by pressing Esc).

The one big exception to this is spellcasting. You choose spells by pressing two numbers, one indicating the level and one indicating the spell within the level, but the game doesn’t tell you what numbers correspond to what spells. In fact, the spell names and descriptions are found nowhere in the game itself, only in the documentation. More than a third of the manual is devoted to spell lists. This is something of a drag on combat at first, because you have to keep breaking your attention away to look up the number for the spell you want to cast, but it doesn’t take long to internalize the more frequently-useful ones. In Wizardry, you learn to associate the word DIOS with a basic level-1 healing spell; in Might and Magic, you develop the same association with the key sequence C-1-4.

The problem with this is that C-1-4 doesn’t always mean “cast the basic level-1 healing spell”. If the character who you wish to cast is is out of mana, the “C” option isn’t even part of the menu, and pressing it has no effect whatsoever. But you’ll press it anyway, because, having internalized that key sequence, you’re not looking at the menu any more; you’re typing it more as a gesture. The stranded keystrokes after the C are still meaningful, though: they make you switch to character 1 in your party roster and then immediately to character 4. This surprises the player, and therefore is not ideal behavior for a UI. And it could be avoided simply by accepting the full gesture and issuing a “Not enough MP” message afterward, like it does when you’re not completely out of mana but don’t have enough for the spell you’ve chosen.

My other major complaint is with menus that seem unnecessarily hierarchical. From the start menu, for example, you have to choose a town to start at, and from there you get a party-selection menu showing the player characters currently in that town. I’m only playing with one set of characters, and sometimes I forget which town they’re in, so I have to search through them all. This means going back to the main menu repeatedly. Switching from one town roster directly to another is not an unreasonable thing to expect — the game manages to switch directly between character details just fine. Similarly, entering a shop gives you a menu that lets you choose who’s shopping and what they’re shopping for (weapons, armor, miscellaneous items), but once you’re in one of the sub-menus for buying items, you can only change the character who’s buying by backing out. If I’m buying new armor, I’m probably buying new armor for multiple people.

It’s not all bad, though. That same shop menu also has an option for giving all the party’s gold to the current character, which is really useful (and simpler than doing it through the character menus). But it’s only useful because the game keeps a separate inventory for each character, which is an unnecessary complication, as Final Fantasy proved.

In fact, I’d say that Final Fantasy — which is also highly menu-driven, and came out around the same time as Might and Magic — generally provided a better UI. It was created for a digital gamepad, which is essentially the same thing as a keyboard, but shaped differently and with fewer keys — much fewer in the original NES version. But that limitation spurred innovation: without enough keys to give every menu option a unique keystroke, they had to come up with a simpler and more general menu-selection UI based on highlighting choices with the D-pad. It’s not a perfect system — in particular, it’s unwieldy for long menus — but it has the advantage of being easily improvable without changing the core interaction, as later ports proved.

Might and Magic: Gender

The visit-all-the-towns quest ends with instructions to seek out two brothers living in the towns of Algary and Portsmith. Portsmith, however, is the last place you’d expect to find a brother: the entire population seems to be female, including the monsters — hags and witches abound. And no wonder: the town is riddled with fields that drain health from male characters. (How exactly this works in-fiction isn’t elaborated on, but I imagine it as something similar to the Pangs of Ulster.)

The fact that player characters have genders at all is something of an anomaly for the era. Wizardry characters certainly didn’t. And I suppose that, having spent a bit on storing this information, the authors had to come up with some way for it to be relevant to gameplay, and to make the manual’s advice that you make characters of both genders somehow relevant. Gender doesn’t affect stats the way race does — is racism more acceptable than sexism? — and there’s no real conversation, and thus little room for gender to have social effects. I can imagine that somewhere there’s a clubhouse with a “No Girls Allowed” sign in front, and I suppose that Portsmith’s anti-male fields are just a gentler version of that.

So, what do you do about it? To a large extent, you can skip over the anti-male fields using the Jump spell, which let you move forward two squares at a time, but this won’t let you miss them all: the town is basically laid out in a grid, with the fields at the intersections, so you need to go through one in order to turn left or right. Then again, you can also just ignore the effects: plowing through the fields will drain all your male characters to 0 health, but, weirdly enough, not actually kill them, or even render them unconscious. Sure, it’s a risk — if you find yourself in combat, all it takes is one hit to take them out. But I’ve actually been through an encounter where none of my men got hit: at the end, they still had 0 hit points, but were still standing. And anyway, you can rest periodically to avoid the extreme. Food is cheap.

Or you can do what the designers probably intended and create an all-female party. Presumably you’d want an all-male party as well, for whatever area makes that desirable. I don’t really want to take this approach if I can avoid it, though. I’ve been using one set of characters ever since I realized that this was feasible (unlike in Wizardry). In fact, ever since I understood that the character stats wouldn’t be increasing any time soon, I’ve been using the premade characters instead of the ones I rolled up myself. This is something I don’t often do. And of those six premade characters, exactly one is female. Fortunately, it’s the healer — yes, just like in a stereotypical JRPG — which is exactly what you need to patch up your other characters when they’re knocked out in combat due to starting out with 0 hit points.

Might and Magic: Crossing the Desert

I spent most of my last session mapping out several new map sectors: contrary to expectation, I failed to find a way of teleporting to other towns from Erliquin, and made my way back to Sorpigal the long way. The next town in the quest chain was Dusk, which is surrounded by a large area of desert.

I’m not entirely clear on the mechanics behind desert tiles yet, but they seemed to have two effects when I tried crossing on foot. First, they cause you to become “lost”, which I think means that they spin you in a random direction. I could be wrong about the randomness; it’s entirely possible that it’s deterministic, in which case a thorough mapper could find a reliable way through. Regardless, the effect on my attempts at crossing is that after spending a number of turns in the desert, I would wind up stumbling out on the same side as I started.

Second, being in the desert automatically consumes food. Every character can carry up to 40 units of food, and normally only consumes it while resting. Resting is an important part of the game: it restores all your spells and hit points, and cures most conditions, except extreme ones like “Poisoned” and “Dead”. (The effects of poison actually become worse every time you rest. It doesn’t deal damage turn by turn like in Wizardry, but rather, makes you weaker day by day.) And you can rest nearly anywhere, even in dungeons, so the length of an expedition is normally only seriously limited by your desire to get back to an inn and bank your winnings before you lose a fight and, with it, your progress. But resting is only effective if you have food, so having a sudden fast drain on your food supply is a pretty big deal. There’s a cleric spell that creates just enough food to satisfy the entire party for one rest, and that may be the key to desert exploration.

But I took the teleport express to Dusk instead. And completing that leg of the quest gave me enough experience to learn the Fly spell, which teleports you to whatever map sector you specify, provided you’re outdoors when you cast it. (The spell description says it sends you to the “safest” spot in that sector, which seems to mean the entrance to a town if there’s a town available.) Suddenly, distance is no longer the obstacle that it was. There are two more towns to visit, and I no longer have to worry about how to reach them. I can get to them without exploring their surroundings.

I still want to thoroughly explore and map every sector, though, because there’s important stuff to be found out there. Back in Sorpigal — which I think I’ll still be visiting regularly, because the food is so cheap there — there’s a bunch of statues with plaques giving hints for quests. One of the more riddlish ones concludes with the line “Judgement day is then sought out”. I believe I’ve found what this refers to: a colossal statue with a set of scales that you can cause to pass judgement on your characters (and which currently finds everyone in my party unworthy). I’ts found in a hidden area in the mountains, behind the outdoor equivalent of a secret door: a tile partition with the “impassible mountain range” texture which you can nonetheless pass through. The only reason I found it is that there was a seemingly unreachable space on my map.

Might and Magic: Whence Heroes?

The Might and Magic series is of course the source of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. So as I play the former, I’m keeping an eye peeled for connections to the latter. And, frankly, I’m not finding much. There are some spell names that the two have in common — in particular, the Town Portal spell, which I anticipated so greatly in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld, looks like it’ll just as useful here — but that’s pretty much it.

To be fair, this is the first episode, and it’s likely that it just hasn’t developed its identity yet. Most of what I’ve seen so far is just undistinguished D&D-style fantasy. But Final Fantasy started off the same way, and look where that ended up. Ultima was half sci-fi to start with, but toned that down considerably from episode 4 onward, when the Virtues of the Avatar became its defining characteristic. Might and Magic seems to have gone in the other direction, becoming more of a science-fantasy over the course of the first five episodes at least, with horizon-dominating planetary bodies becoming prominent on the cover art. But that’s an aspect that’s completely absent in HoMM as I know it. Considering that the first HoMM came out when the most recent Might and Magic game was set on the planet Xeen, I have to wonder what was going on there.

The one major thing I can see as an influence on HoMM so far is the outdoors sections. For one thing, the mere fact that they’re there. Might and Magic had an explorable wilderness before other Wizardry-style RPGs did — it predates the far simpler and less-varied outdoors in The Bard’s Tale II by a year or two. As a result, it establishes from the very beginning an environment for outdoor monsters. Venture into the mountains, for example, and you can wind up fighting herds of centaurs or pegasi — the same cantaurs and pegasi that would become core troop types for “rampart”-type cities in HoMM3. Obviously these aren’t unique to M&M — they’re part of the Narnia-esque mishmash of myth that forms part of D&D‘s core, and therefore the core of early RPGs in general. But that’s the part that’s generally neglected by other early RPGs in favor of the abominations-of-the-dungeon side, the troglodytes and oozes and spiders and so forth. It would be incongruous to find a pegasus wandering the corridors of an underground maze. (Not that Wizardry shied away from the incongruous.)

Might and Magic: A Passage to Erliquin

I haven’t said anything about the plot yet. That’s because, after nearly a week of play, I’m only just starting it. It took me some time to battle through the one-level dungeon under Sorpigal to the point where I got my first quest, a simple courier mission to the town of Erliquin, and it took me a while after that to be able to reach Erliquin. The closest I’ve come to a Wizardry-like lost-in-the-dungeon experience was when I tried to take an overland route to there, but realized that the monsters in the next map sector were getting too tough for me, then tried to return to Sorpigal, only to find that some of the passages between sectors are only passable in one direction.

I did ultimately reach Erliquin, where I was assigned another delivery to another town — I’m guessing that this whole quest chain is meant as a way to get the player to visit and map every town in the land of Varn. But I did not get there by venturing outdoors. I’m a little displeased about how this happened. Remember that I had had problems with text flashing by too fast to read. I had missed some tavern rumors in this way, and wasn’t having any success getting them to show up again — in fact, I don’t think the rumor texts ever do repeat. So I went online to see if I could find some record of the rumors there, and inadvertently got spoilers about a hidden way to teleport from town to town. I might have found it eventually by myself — I knew from experience that there are secret doors, and that therefore I should be banging my head against the boundaries of any unused bit of gridspace. But spoilage is never all that pleasant.

So now I’m mapping Erliquin. I assume I’ll find a similar teleport opportunity taking me to the next node in the chain. I’ve been in one dungeon not affiliated with a town so far, and that too had a way to teleport to it from Sorpigal. I’m kind of wondering now if it ever really becomes necessary to go outdoors at all. Perhaps the wilderness was a late addition to a game designed without it. That would make this like an inverse of some of the Ultima games.

Might and Magic: Whither Might?

I mentioned before that in Wizardry, as the title suggests, the spellcasters are the real powerhouses of the party, while the fighters mainly function as their bodyguards. From the title, you’d expect Might and Magic to treat the two disciplines more equitably. Is this the case?

I can’t really speak to what happens at high experience levels yet, but there are a few things suggesting that it is. For one thing, there are a great many more highly-effective combat buffs. For example, there’s a level 2 cleric spell that increases one person’s effective experience level by 2 for the duration of the encounter. This is essentially an effect that scales with the level of the castee: no matter how powerful you are, two levels will make you substantially more powerful. Still, it won’t turn a sorcerer into an effective melee fighter. Buffs are essentially a means of collaboration between the casters and the fighters.

Mind you, there’s no shortage of damage-all-monsters spells, but they seem to come rather late in the game. At the moment, the only spells I have that affect multiple creatures are the sorcerer’s Sleep spell and the cleric’s Turn Undead. (These are sort of complementary: undead, by definition, resist resting.) Sleep is useful enough that I use it at nearly every encounter, but even when monsters are asleep, someone still has to step in and kill the things.

Also, I think the combat mechanics makes fighters somewhat more useful. Like in Wizardry, there’s a concept of front and back rows, with only the front row being in range of melee attacks. But fighter-types can remain effective in the back by using bows and other missile weapons. (Indeed, one class specializes in it.) Also, characters can exchange positions in mid-combat, making it possible to cycle characters out of the front row as they get hurt. Finally, there’s variation in how wide the front row is. In a narrow dungeon corridor, only two can walk abreast, but in the open wilderness, the first five characters — and the first five monsters — are in melee range. It all makes me think that a fighter-heavy party would be very viable.

Not that I’m much tempted to try such a thing. Might and Magic provides an obvious natural party composition: there are six slots in your party, and six character classes. Only two of which specialize in spells.

Might and Magic: Speed

One thing about playing old games: they often don’t work well with hardware that runs thousands of times faster than what they were written for. I mentioned how there were occasional text messages in Wizardry that didn’t wait for the player to dismiss them and went by too fast to read. The same thing happens in Might and Magic, but far more frequently. Most status update notifications flit by without a prompt, including the hit/miss messages in combat. Combat messages are a special case, because the game lets you change their speed, and even considers it important enough that this is one of the core elements of the combat menu (presumably to let you temporarily speed things up when you’re fighting a dozen weak monsters who all have to take a a turn at missing you). But even there, the delay is relative to the CPU speed, and unreadable at even the maximum delay if I run the game at full speed.

Fortunately, I don’t have to run the game at full speed. As with Wizardry, I’m running it under DOSBox. I can’t say enough good things about DOSBox; it’s easily the best emulator I’ve ever used, and the whole project represented by this blog would probably be impossible without it, or at least very inconvenient.

Anyway, any decent emulator provides some way to adjust the emulated CPU speed, so making all those messages readable is not a problem. But it introduces a new problem: playing at the game’s original speed is a great deal less pleasant. The game takes noticeable time between keypresses to figure things out and then render them. I’m talking about fractions of seconds here (unless you’re moving between map sectors, which is slower), but it’s enough to make the interaction seem muddy and unresponsive, as opposed to the crisp immediacy of reaction before I slowed it down. I suppose I’m spoiled, but this is one aspect of the original experience I can do without.

DOSBox provides a couple of hotkeys for turning the speed up and down, and I’ve spent some time fiddling with it to find a good compromise. Setting it somewhere around 160 KHz seems to work pretty well. Messages flash by pretty quickly, but not too quickly to read, for the most part. Some of the messages from triggering traps are longish, but I as long as I understand that I triggered a trap, I can see the effects by looking at the party status screen.

The traps. That’s another thing M&M does differently from Wizardry. They’re less deadly, but more numerous and harder to avoid: in addition to traps on treasure chests, there are traps on doors, which means sometimes you need to get through one to move forward. I’ll probably have more to say about that later.

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