Archive for February, 2010

Pool of Radiance: End Boss

Here’s a phenomenon that I think most D&D players are familiar with. Let’s say you’re in a situation best handled with subtlety of some sort. It can be stealth, or deceit, or careful manipulation of the physical environment — the details don’t really matter as long as you have some way of accomplishing your goals without combat. The phenomenon is that it basically never works. No matter how carefully you plan, you’re going to slip up somehow, either by an unlucky roll of the dice or just by not anticipating the consequences of your actions, and wind up fighting the guards or whatever. D&D is just biased that way.

The endgame of Pool of Radiance is kind of like that, except that when things go pear-shaped you can always go back to an earlier save and try again. Getting into the castle’s central hedge maze to confront the end boss without setting off any alarms took me multiple tries, and actually defeating the boss took several more — in fact, it took a few tries just to get through his guards, a team of level-8 fighters. Understand that this game does not permit the possibility of simply overpowering these guys by force of superior experience level. The entire game caps experience level at 6 for clerics and magic users, 8 for fighters, and 9 for thieves. I had been relying almost exclusively on direct-damage spells for most of the game’s plot-significant fights, but the most powerful offensive spell you can learn — Fireball — although good for clearing out roomfuls of orcs in a single cast, just doesn’t do enough damage to win the final fight fast enough. To beat the boss, you have to really know what you’re doing — and on your first attempt, you don’t. You don’t even know you’re about to fight the boss until you stumble into his room once, and you really need to buff up before you do that.

The boss, incedentally, is known as “the boss” within the game itself. It comes off as a little meta, but really, it’s an attempt to create a sense of mystery about who’s actually pulling the strings. In a sense, though, the authors have told you who the boss is before you even start playing. I haven’t talked about the meaning of the title: within the gameworld, the Pool of Radiance is a legend akin to the Holy Grail, something elusive and sought after, granting great power to those who find it. And, like in some versions of the Grail legend, it’s capable of transporting itself from place to place. Some of the bad guys are looking for the Pool of Radiance, but the end boss, in a sense, is the Pool of Radiance — or rather, the demon that possesses anyone foolish enough to dive into its waters. So, really not so much Holy Grail as One Ring.

Anyway, it’s with some relief that I remove the first game from the Stack this year. I had a lot of negative things to say about Pool of Radiance, but it does an admirable job of putting all its RPGisms into a sensible context in which everything has a reason to be the way it is. Even the monsters frequently have some larger goal they’re trying to achieve by attacking you, rather than doing so just because they’re monsters. Next up: the sequel.

Pool of Radiance: Talking Things Out Of Hitting You

Completist that I am, I’ve taken care to complete all my dangling quests before proceeding into the city’s climactic castle. This meant spending a considerable amount of time scouring the wilderness for the last few places of significance. The explorable part of the wilderness is only about 40×30 map tiles, which wouldn’t take that long to go through systematically if it weren’t for the fact that I keep getting interrupted by random encounters. Fortunately, I have one thing that helps speed them along: a character with a natural 18 charisma.

This was not deliberate on my part. Charisma is traditionally the least useful stat in D&D, and I probably would have treated it accordingly if the character generation system let me. But generation here is done the traditional way: randomly. The game makes it easy to repeatedly re-roll your stats until you get something you like, and one of my fighters just happened to get lucky in charisma at the same time as in the stats I cared about. The effect is that I can talk my way out of fighting a lot of the time, assuming that the fight is with something able and willing to talk. (A lot of the wilderness encounters are with wild animals. While I can imagine someone with a really high charisma dissuading a wild boar from charging by means of body language, it’s never worked for me.)

When you choose to “parlay” (sic) instead of attack, you get a choice of conversational tone: Haughty, Sly, Nice, Meek, or Abusive. You might think that choosing anything other than Nice would tend to give offense, but in fact different types of monster tend to respond well to different tones, which is a neat little way of adding a touch of personality to the different monster types. For example, gnolls, if my observations are at all accurate, only respect the Haughty, while minotaurs are grandstanding bullies who see anything but Meekness as a challenge to their dominance. Kobolds respond well to the Abusive approach — as the least powerful of the humanoid monsters, they’re probably so used to being pushed around that they see anything else as a sign of weakness.

The Sly tone is a special case: it’s an attempt not just to persuade the monster to not attack you, but also to subtly pump it for information. This is really only useful in specific puzzle-like situations, though; wandering monsters in the wilderness generally don’t know anything.

Anyway, it’s good to have alternatives to combat, especially at this late stage in the game, when combat basically doesn’t benefit me. Most of my characters are at their maximum experience level (a by-product of completing all the quests), and I have about as much money as I can carry (and nothing to spend it on). A lot of the pleasure in RPGs comes from improving your characters, and I’m running out of room for improvement. Good thing it’s ending soon.

Pool of Radiance: Continuing

According to my self-imposed schedule, I should be moving on to 1989 this weekend. This may not happen. I think I’m pretty close to the end of Pool of Radiance, and want to polish it off before moving on. More importantly, looking ahead, I see that there are three games on the Stack for 1990: Might and Magic II, Wizardry VI, and Secret of the Silver Blades, the third of the SSI Gold Box games. I prefer to play series in order when possible, and the only one of these where I could plausibly do that in two weeks is Silver Blades, and that only if I manage to finish Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds in that time. But I think this is doable; as I mentioned before, I spent much of the beginning of the current two-week block lallygagging. Also, importing some level-6 (or higher) characters into Azure Bonds can be expected to make it go faster. But we’ll see.

Pool of Radiance: Ancestral Rules

It’s a simple truism that CRPGs were influenced by D&D. You might as well point out the influence of Space Invaders on shooters, or of Sherlock Holmes on detective fiction. But the interesting thing about Pool of Radiance is the way it exposes the things that other CRPGs typically don’t imitate about D&D (as it existed at the time). I’ve already pointed out a few — gaining experience points for discovering treasure, for example. Or the memorizing of spells: nothing that isn’t strictly D&D-based bothers with that. Mana systems are the norm, and even venerable Wizardry provided something more like what would become the mechanics of the Sorcerer class in third edition D&D.

There’s all the little details of the mechanics of resting: taking different amounts of time to memorize different spell levels, or the way you can rest for days to restore hit points very slowly. The amount of time you spend resting is significant, because random encounters are based on strict timekeeping by the DM — something that most actual D&D groups probably didn’t bother managing, but which a computer can do easily. Nonetheless, most other CRPGs simplify things by assuming that a rest is simply a rest. Likewise, PoR faithfully implements the D&D encumbrance rules.

A lot of D&D-influenced games have limits on what races can be what classes, but this is the only one I can think of that imposes maximum experience levels for specific race/class combinations, leaving only humans able to advance arbitrarily. This is another idea imported directly from AD&D, and it’s weird enough that I have to wonder what effect Gygax was trying for. Perhaps it’s more natural coming from a miniatures wargaming perspective; perhaps level caps are part of the basic mechanics of the other games he was playing, and allowing higher caps for specific combinations was a way to say that dwarves are better fighters than halflings and so forth. In which case unlimited advancement for humans was seen as a special treat for them, rather than (as it is from the player’s perspective) punishment for everyone else. Anyway, this isn’t something I expect to come afoul of in the course of PoR, but it’ll certainly affect which characters I choose to import into the sequel.

One of the really striking things is just how slow combat is. CRPGs typically get individual encounters over with quickly, so that a typical session involves many encounters, but it’s not unusual for a large encounter to take the entirety of a D&D session. To a large extent, this difference is because D&D involves humans rolling dice and talking to each other, things that a computer can do much more quickly. But even so, the less-risky encounters in PoR frequently come down to putting all your characters on autopilot and then making yourself a sandwich or something while you wait for the computer to finish up. Partly this is because it has to go and animate the movement of every individual creature in the encounter, partly it’s because most encounters end with chasing down the last few monsters who tried to flee the area but got stuck on a wall somewhere. But partly it’s because, in the original D&D rules, attempts at hitting opponents simply miss most of the time. (This is why Magic Missile is such an important spell: it never misses.) In other CRPGs (particularly JRPGs), it’s more common for most blows to connect, but do proportionately little damage.

Generally speaking, the history of RPGs has been one of simplification, of eliminating elements that don’t justify themselves in fun (and introducing new elements that do). And CRPGs have evolved in this way faster than pencil-and-paper ones, by virtue of their faster revision cycle. People have complained that fourth edition D&D imitated the mechanics of World of Warcraft, but if you ask me, learning the design lessons that computer games have to offer is a smart thing to do. Even at this early stage in the history of the medium, CRPGs had to pick and choose what aspects of the D&D experience they felt were valuable — Wizardry simply couldn’t implement the entire ruleset and still run on the Commodore 64. For keeping the details that other games left out, PoR probably seemed more sophisticated than its competition at the time, but it really represented something of a step backwards.

It’s worth noting some of the features of D&D that aren’t imported into PoR. There’s no food here. There’s no mention of material components for spells. Light sources aren’t needed; your entire party can see as well underground as in town, eliminating the need for torches or any kind of light spell. These are all things that I consider pretty important to the texture of old-school D&D — what, I can’t buy iron rations? — but they were considered to be too much trouble to include, even by the people who implemented the encumbrance rules. It’s especially notable that these are all things that were present in various episodes in the Ultima series — I think U7 had them all.

Pool of Radiance: Outdoors

Pool of Radiance has an explorable wilderness outside the city of Phlan. It takes a strangely long time to get to the point of seeing it, though: to reach it from your starting point in the “civilized” areas, you have to either find a way through the dangerous, monster-infested parts of the city, or take a boat — but boats won’t go past the keep on the river until you’ve cleared it. I probably took longer than intended to chase the ghosts out of that keep: to do it properly, you need to transliterate some nonsense words written in elvish runes, and I was unable to find an appropriate rosetta stone anywhere in the game. (You’d think that my elvish party members would be some help here, but no.) I eventually solved this puzzle only by noticing a certain pattern to the runes on the code wheel you use to produce the key word to start the game, and I suspect that the original game had a slightly different code wheel design that emphasized this pattern more.

You can think of Phlan as organized more or less like New York City: built at the mouth of a river, with the city hall and all the best shopping crammed into a Lower-Manhattan-like protrusion. Sokal Keep is more or less in the Staten Island position, and other boroughs lie across various branches of the river. As long as you’re in the bounds of the city, all you can see is the buildings around you. But PoR‘s wilderness (its upstate, so to speak) is different: it’s presented in an Ultima-style tile map view, with no obstructions to visibility or to travel (except for parts of that river). And, perhaps appropriately for someone who started out downtown, I don’t find it all that interesting.

I suppose it’s the sheer openness. With nothing to block your way, there’s no reason to draw maps, nothing to occupy your attention as you explore. You might as well sweep the width of the world in straight lines, exhaustively finding all the relevant features with minimal effort. I haven’t even been bothering to map the few caves and the like that I’ve found in the process of doing this, so out of mapping-mode am I. Also, the quests out here are extremely open-ended. I’ve been told to find a kobold tribe and prevent them from joining with the Enemy, and to do the same with a bunch of nomads. These could be anywhere, and I won’t know where until I bump into them. By contrast, most of the in-town quests have been quite directed. If you’re told to cleanse the Temple of Bane, there’s no real problem finding the Temple. It’s the single biggest structure in its sector. But nothing’s big compared to the outdoors.

Pool of Radiance: Restoration

As usual, I’ve been writing about things that I don’t fully understand, and getting bits of it wrong. I’d like to issue a couple of retractions now, and then a partial retraction of the retractions.

First of all, the documentation for Pool of Radiance actually does contain descriptions of the spells, just not in the places where I was looking — in fact, it was in a place where I didn’t even realize that there was documentation, on the CD. I’ve already amended the post where I made this error.

Second, there is in fact a way to restore drained experience levels. I thought that there wasn’t because the spell to do it, Restoration, isn’t learnable by player characters (the level cap is too low), and isn’t offered by the temples where you can be healed or resurrected for pay. But there’s one more vector for spells: scrolls. I’ve accumulated a trunkload of cleric scrolls as loot from random encounters, but I hadn’t really paid any attention to them — the game doesn’t actually tell you what’s on the scrolls until you read them, and I just kind of assumed that they wouldn’t have any spells that aren’t otherwise available in the game. But I kept them around, figuring that there would come a time when I needed some emergency healing. It turns out that most of them are scrolls of Restoration. And a good thing, too, because I’m going to be moving on the graveyard pretty soon.

And here’s the partial second-order retraction: the Restoration spell isn’t described in the Pool of Radiance documentation at all, presumably because your characters can’t learn to cast it unaided. So, here’s a point where familiarity with D&D provides crucial information that you’d find it difficult to get from the game itself: casting Restoration on a character who hasn’t suffered the right kind of damage simply produces no obvious effect.

It’s not the only thing like this, either. At one point, I found a Manual of Bodily Health. This is a rare magic item that increases the Constitution score of the person who uses it… but not immediately. It takes a matter of days to study the manual in its entirety — exactly how many I don’t know. But the way it’s presented in this game, using the manual immediately consumes it, leaving you wondering what happened; bringing up the screen that shows all the spells currently in effect on the party shows that the person who used it is now under a special pseudo-spell, but I pretty much never bring up that screen. I’ve looked at a few reviews by now, and some of them talk about how the Manual of Bodily Health as buggy and nonfunctional. I honestly don’t know whether to believe this or not; it’s easy to believe that it worked as specified in the D&D rules, but that a lot of people didn’t notice.

Pool of Radiance: Same Old

I’ve really been getting into the swing of this game. Once you’re used to the stupidity of the interface, it goes pretty quickly. I’m completing multiple missions per day now, each yielding a substantial experience bonus. (Or maybe that’s just the experience for receiving the cash reward. That’s something I had almost forgotten about the AD&D rules: you get experience points for treasure, not just for defeating enemies.) There’s a nearly one-to-one correlation between missions and map sectors (16×16 segments, just like in Might and Magic), and judging by a map I found in Phlan’s library, I’ve subdued most of the map by now (barring secret dungeons).

It probably helps that it’s all so familiar. Apart from the fact that it’s mostly above ground, this is very much a by-the-book D&D campaign. You’ve got your sequence of progressively-tougher humanoid opponents, starting with kobolds and goblins, working up through orcs and hobgoblins to gnolls and bugbears — all of which functionally equivalent, but rendered distinct in the mind by the way that each takes a turn at being the new, tougher-than-normal thing. At the same time, you’re also climbing a parallel ladder with the undead, starting with skeletons and zombies, moving up to ghouls and wights and so forth — which aren’t functionally equivalent, because ghouls paralyze and wights drain experience levels. 1Level drain a pretty big deal here, because the game provides no way to restore lost levels other than by re-earning the experience. It’s not clear to me whether this is because the game doesn’t support experience levels high enough to learn and cast Restoration, or whether the Restoration spell didn’t exist at the time. The latter is plausible; the first edition rules had all sorts of nastiness, including the infamous “saving throw vs death” effects. If you’ve ever played a D&D campaign from experience level 1 to 5 or so, this probably sounds very familiar to you — not just the general idea, but the specific monsters in the sequence, which most CRPGs would make up from scratch (or imitate and get slightly wrong). What I’m describing may not be how every campaign goes, but it’s certainly one of the standard openings. As the first officially licensed D&D adaptation, Pool of Radiance is basically trying to be the definitive computerized D&D experience, and that means hewing close to the typical.

It’s kind of fortunate that it’s so familiar, because sliding down that groove keeps me from having to think too hard about what I’m really doing. It’s been said many times before that the typical CRPG is about killing people and taking their stuff. 2Where “people” is taken to include any being sentient enough to engage in conversation, which applies to all of the monsters on the goblin/orc track, and some on the undead track. Here, it’s even worse: it’s about killing people and taking their land, which makes it uncomfortably close to a number of real-world situations that I’m sure the authors didn’t intend. And sure, the enemy isn’t even human, but I don’t really have to comment on the implications of that one, do I? Should I even mention that the land used to be ours long ago? Good thing morality is objectively determinable in the world of D&D or I might start to wonder who the “good guys” are. I guess this is what happens when you start to work real plot into your games.

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1. Level drain a pretty big deal here, because the game provides no way to restore lost levels other than by re-earning the experience. It’s not clear to me whether this is because the game doesn’t support experience levels high enough to learn and cast Restoration, or whether the Restoration spell didn’t exist at the time. The latter is plausible; the first edition rules had all sorts of nastiness, including the infamous “saving throw vs death” effects.
2. Where “people” is taken to include any being sentient enough to engage in conversation, which applies to all of the monsters on the goblin/orc track, and some on the undead track.

Pool of Radiance: Storytelling

I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about this game, but it’s not all bad. It handles the story progression pretty well, especially in contrast to my last two games. Wizardry was pretty much a pure context-irrelevant dungeon crawl with occasional elements that hinted at a story somewhere in the author’s mind. Might and Magic had a more thoroughly-developed environment, but pretty much left discoveries up to the player. PoR exerts authorial control.

It does this chiefly through the author’s representative in the gameworld, the Council Clerk who offers you missions. There seem to generally be two missions available at a time, in addition to an ongoing reward offered for documents relating to the town’s history. Some of the missions are as simple as “Clear the monsters out of the indicated area”, others have story built in. For example, there’s one mission to stop someone from auctioning a powerful weapon to the monsters. When you get to the area where the auction is to take place, you have a choice: stride boldly forward, sneak around unobserved, or disguise your party as monsters. The latter two options allow you to overhear monster conversations, as they wonder if “the Boss” is going to place a bid, or gossip about how the ogres that had taken up residence in the castle got kicked out by giants.

Even the apparently simple missions can suddenly take a turn for the plotty. On a mission to a haunted keep, I unexpectedly found that the central chamber is guarded by a small army of orcs and hobgoblins — the toughest fight I’d found yet at the time. Before I finally beat them, I had to return multiple times, always wondering what was in that room that the mysterious “Boss” needed to guard so badly. Ultimately, it turned out to be nothing at all. After victory, I found a note — one of those look-it-up-in-the-manual journal entries — giving the guards their orders: they had been sent there specifically to prevent me from telling the Council that the keep was abandoned. It also specifically mentioned that they have spies among the settlers, which ties in with some things that a fortune teller in the slums said, about finding enemies where friends are expected.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking about any of this — or at least, not today. Remember, this was released in 1988, the year of the year of Ultima V and Final Fantasy II — a time when CRPGs in general were really just beginning to experiment with narrative techniques. In that context, it’s probably a bit ahead of the pack. And that’s probably attributable to what I’ve been saying all along: that this game, more than a typical CRPG, is designed like a D&D module.

Pool of Radiance: Documentation

One peculiar thing about Pool of Radiance: A lot of the game’s text isn’t in the game. Every once in a while, it directs you to read a passage from the manual: there’s a section of the manual for journal entries you can find, and a section for proclamations posted outside the town hall, and even a section of tavern rumors, all tagged with identifiers referenced in the game content. The player is more or less on the honor system to not read ahead (although there are apparently red herrings sprinkled in amongst the legitimate content to mislead the cheaters). And that’s fine by me; these days, with walkthroughs for nearly everything readily available online, we’re always on the honor system.

While it isn’t common practice today to leave in-game text out of the game, Pool of Radiance is not unique in this regard. For example, Wasteland, PoR‘s contemporary in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, did something similar, with important plot events described in a big list of numbered paragraphs. The very first CRPG I ever played, Temple of Apshai, had printed descriptions of each room, in imitation of the style of D&D modules. Presumably the same inspiration applies in part here, but Apshai at least had the additional excuse of being really, really old. I’ve described Wizardry and Ultima as the foundations of the CRPG genre, but Apshai predates them both; it just wasn’t as influential (and for good reasons). It was originally written for the TRS-80, with all its limitations, and shipped on a cassette tape rather than floppy disks: moving as much data as possible out of the executable and into the manual was a practical matter. (It even went to the extreme of putting treasure on the honor system. When you returned from the dungeon, you were expected to look up how much all your collected items were worth and type in the sum.) For PoR and Wasteland, which routinely contain text passages without this look-it-up-in-the-manual nonsense, the motivation probably had more to do with casual piracy. Copying disks was easy and essentialy costless — floppy disks are reusable. But not so the manual — at least not in the 1980s, when scanners were scarce.

Mind you, photocopiers were plentiful. But the cost of photocopying the text pages (in both money and time) increases with the number of pages copied. This would give the designers a motivation to make the game text items as long as possible, and sure enough, they occupy the bulk of the PoR manual. Notably, they take up the space that old fantasy RPGs normally devote to spell lists.

Bulky spell lists are another thing that the genre got from D&D, so it’s a little ironic that they’re crammed onto a single page here in the first official D&D adaptation — both magic-user and cleric spells together, taking up less total space than the damage stats for all the polearms. All that’s listed is the spell names, not what they do. I guess you’re expected to already be familiar with the effects from playing D&D, but D&D has changed a lot in the last twenty years, so I’m left guessing about some of them. “Friends”? There was a spell called “Friends” in 1e? (It’s a charisma buff, it turns out.) “Spiritual Hammer” seems to create a hammer in the caster’s inventory, but I have no idea what its advantages are over a normal weapon. “Read Magic” seems straightforward, but casting it has not enabled me to tell what spells are on the scrolls I’ve found — perhaps I’m just doing the wrong thing in the UI?

[Added 6 February 2010] OK, it turns out that The Forgotten Realms Archives (the anthology package I’m playing from) contains more documentation than I knew about. The Gold Box games apparently had three pieces of printed documentation: the Reference Card, the Journal, and the Manual. This anthology comes with a thick printed book containing the Reference Cards and the Journals. The Manuals are on the CD, in PCX format, with a DOS-based viewer — I think I prefer the HTML transcription that Jason Dyer links to in the comments below. They include a great deal of gameplay information that I had been missing — not just the spell descriptions, but things like race/class limitations and what exactly all the menu options are supposed to do. I wish I had known about this while I was creating my characters.

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”.

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