Archive for September, 2017

ToEE: Doors

The Temple of Elemental Evil engine supports two distinct types of doors. You’ve got your doors that separate rooms, and you’ve got your doors that separate zones. The former sort are wall features that can be toggled open and closed with a click, and that block movement and vision while closed. The latter are blue door-shaped or stairway-shaped icons overlaid on the world, that transport your party to a different map when walked into. Zone doors are actually a great deal more common than room doors. Just about every store and dwelling in Hommlet has its interior on a separate map, whereas you’re not likely to see any interior doors until you get to the dungeon, and even then, you might not see them. Despite a cursor change on rollover, they’re not nearly as visible as those bright blue zone-change icons. Let me tell you a story.

On the first floor of the moat house dungeon, there’s a room containing an ogre. I had kind of forgotten about this, because the first time I entered that room, the ogre showed that it could easily kill my guys with a single blow, and so I had mentally labeled the encounter as “too tough for now”. But in my latest session, I gave it another try, taking advantage of the “Cause Fear” spell that one of my NPC followers knows. I feel like the best monster encounters in this game have this puzzle-like aspect to them, that they become easy once you hit on the right tactics. That one spell was basically all it took to win the fight.

On the opposite side of the ogre room was a “natural cavern”-textured passage downward, leading into unexplored territory, but also back into explored territory: one branch led down to the home of those gnolls I mentioned last time. There wasn’t even a secret door or anything hiding the passage from the gnoll end; it was just a hole in the wall that I had failed to notice previously. There was, however, a secret door in the passage near the ogre side, which my elf found. Elves have a passive ability to notice secret doors without searching, and I had an elf in my party for this very reason. When the elf passed by a certain point, suddenly a blue icon appeared, indicating inter-zone door, which leading back up to the first floor. The destination was a room I hadn’t seen before: the actual hideout of the bandits I was supposed to hunt down. This room, it turns out, is directly adjacent to the dungeon’s entrance room, through a perfectly ordinary door that I had completely missed before, because that part of the room was kind of dark.

Presumably the intention here was that the ordinary door was supposed to be the easy way into the bandit room, and the secret passage was supposed to be found from there, not at the end where I found it. That would make it a way for observant adventurers to bypass the ogre and the gnolls. But I did it backwards, because it’s easier to find a secret door than to spot a non-secret one. In fact, it’s at least an ogre-fight easier.

One more irony: Before I did all this, I made a sally into another hall that I knew to be populated by humans. Not by fighting them, mind you. I had tried that before, and found them to be both numerous and tough. No, this time I just put my rogue into sneak mode and had her do some reconnaissance. Sneak mode is fairly miraculous in this game; you can walk right in front of people in well-lit conditions and they just look through you. At the end of a big room full of guards, I found the chamber of Lareth the Beautiful, who’s apparently in charge of the moat house operation, and who’s so evil, he emits particle effects even when he’s just standing there. I still haven’t confronted Lareth at all. I just rifled his dresser, boosted his diary, and scrammed. The diary told me some things I already suspected, and some other things that I did not, which I may describe later. For now, the relevant part is his delight at the arrival of the bandits: They’re a plausible cover for the murders he’s doing! If anyone comes sniffing around, they’ll just kill the bandits and leave satisfied! It’s perfect! Well, except for the minor detail that Lareth was a lot easier to find. I actually thought that Lareth’s men were the bandits until I found that diary.

Going back to Church of St. Cuthbert, I find that killing the bandits is enough to let me turn in the “clear the moat house” quest, even though I know for a fact that the moat house is not in any meaningful sense cleared. I think I may hold off on that for a little bit.

ToEE: Good, Evil, and Neutral

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but I did manage to get in a little bit of Temple time. My chief accomplishment was slaughtering a gaggle of gnolls living under that moat house. This was actually optional; if you manage to talk to the gnoll leader without making him attack you — say, by means of a Charm Person spell — you learn that they’re planning on clearing out pretty soon anyway, in fear of the greater evils being awakened in the vicinity. And that’s a useful bit of plot for him to provide, but once I had it, I killed him anyway. In Wizardry III, this behavior, attacking non-hostile monsters, would be considered evil, and start to turn my party evil. For all the care that ToEE puts onto humanizing its characters, its lack of concern here seems like a substantial step backward from the intentions of a game published fully 20 years earlier. In-fiction, I can justify myself on the simple basis that gnolls are Evil, and that if they leave the moat house alive, they’ll just wind up killing and terrorizing innocents somewhere else. But I know full well that my motivation as a player had nothing to do with that, and that I simply kill whatever I can because I need the XP. In the cold light of day, this seems even worse. Valuing others solely for their utility, and their lives for what you can gain from snuffing them out — surely that’s the essence of evil?

Afterwards, I explored Hommlet some more. Small though it is by real-world standards, it’s a pretty big place for a city in a CRPG, and I’m still discovering new people I haven’t talked to yet. In particular, this time around I found Jaroo, someone I had heard several villagers mention before. This surprised me, because I had gotten the impression that Jaroo was a god. I mean, every mention of him is like “We’re attempting to convert Jaroo’s followers” or “The Cuthbertites can keep their new faith, I put my trust in Jaroo” or “Jaroo has the power to heal any sickness”. Well, it turns out he’s s druid. He’s the local leader of the old faith, which is something that I sort of assumed was a folk religion and didn’t need a leader. But no, here he is, the opposite number to the priest in the Cuthbert church. Because obviously alignments are basically just teams, and what’s a team without a captain?

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. 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 it 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.

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 trees, 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.

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.