Archive for March, 2010

SotSB: I don’t want to fight

Just a brief note today, corresponding to a brief play session. My time has mostly been spoken for the last few days. This will end soon, but I can’t help but feel like I’m dragging my heels again, like when I was just starting Pool of Radiance — perhaps because I’m no longer rushing to access sequels on schedule. (There is one more game left in the series, Pools of Darkness, but I don’t feel like I have to start that next week, because I have other games from 1991 I can do instead.)

But also, I may be getting tired of the gameplay. I’ve made a lot of comments about the subtle differences between the Gold Box games, and how the user interface incrementally improves, but the fact is, the bulk of my time spent playing the game is still a matter of maneuvering guys around on a battlefield, casting the same few spells, and then going through the ritual of resting up, re-memorizing spells, and identifying any enchanted loot I found. Bosses break this up a little, but they’re a minority of the play time. The one thing that really changes as I advance is that my higher-level characters have more spells and more hit points, and therefore can have more battles between rests.

I vaguely recall a passage in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide about how the players should regard monsters as obstacles, not goals. (Presumably this is the rationale for providing XP for treasure.) A lot of CRPGs break this idea, to the point where players spend time wandering around explicitly looking for random encounters. Here, though, I’m really feeling like random encounters are just getting in the way of me doing what I want to do, which is advancing in the plot in a timely fashion. In the previous two games, there were ways to avoid a lot of the random encounters, usually by means of the “Parlay” option. (One dungeon in Curse of the Azure Bonds had random encounters with giant slugs, which could be avoided by simply stepping out of their way.) But that hasn’t even been an option here.

SotSB: Outside the Box

Just outside of the starting area in Secret of the Silver Blades, there’s a district that doesn’t fit inside the usual 16×16 map sector. Places like this started cropping up in Curse of the Azure Bonds, but I didn’t pay much attention to them there, because they were in places obviously disconnected from the plot. I don’t really think this one is connected to the plot either, but the plot here is less of a driving force, at least at the beginning, so I decided to explore it anyway.

I had some suspicion that an area that seems like it doesn’t fit in the usual map grid would turn out to simply have wraparound, or at least somehow fit together jigsaw-style into a neat square. There was at least one dungeon in CotAB that pretended to be long and skinny, but was composed of strips that naturally fit together into a 16×16 block. But that really doesn’t seem to be the case here. So the game engine is capable of supporting larger areas. And yet, the important areas still seem to be limited to the standard size, and I have an inkling why. It has to do with triggered events. In important areas, stepping into particular spots will produce effects ranging from simple descriptive text to monster encounters to plot events. Traps and hidden treasure caches may also be bound to particular map tiles. I’ve seen similar events in the larger areas, but they’re not actually bound to locations: if I go back to an earlier save and explore the same area again, they’ll happen in different spots. So, I hypothesize that the designers implemented special events in terms of a list of coordinate references, and opted to keep those references limited to 16×16 — which, as I pointed out before, fits neatly into a single byte. Whatever model they’re using for the walls is clearly more freeform.

Another thing about the large area here: it smacks of procedural generation. There are a lot of repeated identical rooms and pointless dead ends. I don’t think the game actually generates maps procedurally at runtime, but it could easily have been generated randomly during the authoring stage, either by a computer program or even by rolling dice. There’s even a certain amount of tradition to the latter approach: the first-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide had a section on generating dungeons randomly. (I tried it in a live session once. It didn’t work very well.) But who knows? Maybe the designers just threw in the identical rooms and dead ends to make it labyrhinthine and confusing. But it would be more effective at this if I didn’t have my map coordinates on the screen all the time.

Secret of the Silver Blades: Getting Started

So! Let’s get to it. The silver blades: what is their secret? I don’t know. I don’t even know what the silver blades are yet. The game opens with no mention of them, presumably because they’re secret. Instead, we have (ye gods) a something-evil-in-the-mines opening. Well, fair enough: the series hadn’t tackled this cliché yet.

First impressions: They’ve really devoted some attention to improving the engine this time around. The visual presentation hasn’t changed much (apart from reorganizing the character sheets and adding some new wall textures), but they’ve added support for two major pieces of add-on hardware.

One is the Ad Lib sound card — yes, just the original Ad Lib, not the Soundblaster, which means that we just get FM synthesis, not sampled sound effects. Laugh all you want. The Ad Lib was a tremendous improvement over the previous state of the art, the PC internal speaker. It doesn’t seem to get used much here, though: the only bit that really takes advantage of it is the intro sequence, which has background music. Still, even that little goes a long way toward making the game feel more professional than its predecessors.

The other new hardware is the mouse. This makes a big difference in a fundamentally menu-driven game. But then, the menu system had gone through something of an overhaul anyway, mostly for the better. Vertically-aligned menus are now navigated with the up/down keys instead of the difficult and unexpected home/end of the previous two games. Consequently, I’m having to retrain myself; I keep reaching for the wrong keys here. Of course, using the up/down keys like this means that you can’t scroll through a menu and use the up/down keys for movement within the world at the same time, and accordingly, movement has been separated out into its own mode. I complained about the having to manually switch into movement mode in combat in Pool of Radiance, but it’s not so bad in this context, because once you’re in movement mode, you tend to stay in it for a long time. In combat, you had to switch back every round.

So I’m a bit disappointed to see that we’re back to having to manually switch into movement in combat as well, undoing one of CotAB‘s chief improvements to the UI. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.

CotAB: Final Battle

The final area of Curse of the Azure Bonds does something singularly cruel: it locks you into a final 16×16 map sector until you either die or win the game, sending unlimited numbers of random encounters at you as you explore, while not letting you rest at all — the power of the sole remaining bond compels you to keep on moving. Since your supply of both spells and hit points is limited, it behooves you to find your way to the final chamber, where you confront the demon Tyranthraxus, as efficiently as possible. In other words, the solution is to explore thoroughly, mapping all the while, until you stagger half-dead into the final encounter, and then restore an earlier save and do it right this time. And while you’re at it, take a moment to trek back across the country to that one city that has a magic store and pick up some healing and speed potions for everybody. Speed potions are the key to killing powerful creatures quickly in this game, letting your warrior-types get in extra blows. Sure, the Haste spell does the same thing, and doesn’t cost you money, but money flows like water at this point (it got so I wasn’t even picking up platinum pieces any more), and it’s better to save your precious, unrenewable spell slots for something more directly deadly.

Really, though, the limited amount of spellcasting you can do in the endgame doesn’t matter as much as you might think, because by this point in the game you’ve doubtless picked up a bunch of wands and other spellcasting items, some (all?) of which can even be used by warrior-types. And if you’re at all like me, you’ve hoarded them without using them, so they’re all at full charge. Tyranthraxus has an army defending him, but what with one guy using a Wand of Fireballs, and another guy using a Necklace of Missiles (the missiles being fireballs), and another guy just plain casting Fireball, the defenders don’t last long. The fireballs don’t affect Tyranthraxus, though. He’s basically a fire god, but I don’t think that’s why; I think he just has a high magic resistance. D&D didn’t really do much with intrinsic elemental resistances at this stage in its history. Even the Efreets 1I suppose I should pluralize it as Efreeti, but I want the plurality to be unambiguous — unlike the AD&D Monster Manual, which left a lot of players thinking that Efreeti was the singular. Curse of the Azure Bonds itself uses the term “Efreetis”. that I encountered earlier could be hurt by my fireballs, and they’re from the Elemental Plane of Fire, for crying out loud.

I don’t think I mentioned the name Tyranthraxus in my writeup of Pool of Radiance, but he’s the end boss there as well, albeit possessing a different body. And he retains some of the same habits, like letting strangers wander his territory unmolested by patrols as long as they mention his name when questioned. It’s different here, though, because until you get rid of the final bond, saying that Tyranthraxus is your master is actually the truth. Also, there’s good reason for those patrols to leave you alone: Tyranthraxus actually wants you to come to his lair, where his master plan would come to fruition, were it not for a last-second NPC-thrown monkey wrench. He turns out to be something of a puppet master in this game, manipulating you into ridding yourself of the first four bonds so that he can have exclusive control over you. That mysterious cloaked figure who I thought was probably Elminster? Not Elminster. Elminster doesn’t show up at all. Perhaps he was only mentioned in the manual to fool the player as I was fooled.

Anyway, that’s another Gold Box game down. By now I’ve pretty much gotten used to the user interface, including the peculiar key combinations required for diagonal movement on my laptop. (I did try an external keypad, but find it even more awkward than the combinations.) But also, the user interface is improved over Pool of Radiance in a number of ways that weren’t obvious at first. Remember how I said that what the game really needs in combat is something more like a rogue-like interface, where you can just move the current character without hitting a key to go into movement mode? CotAB supports something very close to that: there’s still a separate movement mode, but you automatically switch into it from the main action mode when you press a direction key. So, yay incremental improvements! Let’s hope they keep coming.

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1. I suppose I should pluralize it as Efreeti, but I want the plurality to be unambiguous — unlike the AD&D Monster Manual, which left a lot of players thinking that Efreeti was the singular. Curse of the Azure Bonds itself uses the term “Efreetis”.

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