CotAB: Spell Memorization

I said before that it’s rare for CRPGs to implement anything like D&D-style spell memorization unless they’re explicitly using the D&D license. (The only other games I can think of offhand that use it are the ones in Infocom’s Enchanter series, and those are adventures, not RPGs.) In early titles like Wizardry, the shift away may have been primarily a way of saving memory. But once mana systems and the like were established as viable, they were obviously more appealing to players. Being forced to choose a subset of the spells available to you means losing the full freedom and flexibility that those options represent.

But limitations are at the heart of what makes a game. Perhaps there’s something that we lose by abandoning the memorization system? Sometimes, I think there is: a level of preparation. If you know in advance what sort of enemies you’re going to be fighting, you can tailor your spell roster to them. I did this a fair amount in Pool of Radiance: going to the graveyard to fight undead, for example, I knew full well that Sleep would be useless.

My experience with playing D&D live is that there’s almost never an opportunity for this sort of advance preparation. Most scenarios seem to involve either walking into a mostly unknown situation or responding to an emergency that doesn’t allow you the rest period needed to prepare new spells. The engine used in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds sidesteps around both of those contingencies. In grand CRPG tradition, emergencies are illusions: if you can find a safe place to rest, you can rest there indefinitely and pick up the emergency where you left off. And nothing comes unexpected when you’ve gone back to a previous save.

And yet, my spell choice is seldom driven by circumstance. Usually I pick the same spells that have proven useful over and over: Fireball, Magic Missile, Cure Light Wounds, Hold Person, etc. Sleep stopped being useful somewhere in PoR. Now that I can cast Cure Serious Wounds, I’ve toyed with swapping out an instance of Cure Light Wounds in favor of a utility spell like Detect Magic, but when you come down to it, you never have enough healing power. And I’m told in the comments to the last post that it only gets worse at high levels!

I’m pretty sure this is the fault of the D&D spell list, rather than of the basic mechanic. I can imagine alternate lists making spell selection into a vital part of the game. Indeed, other games do this routinely, just not with spells: consider Pokémon. Or, closer to what a game like this one would do, consider what some games (Blood Omen, for example) do with variously-enchanted weapons and armor. Of course in order to make that into a prep-time activity, the game would have to prevent you from changing weapons and armor mid-fight, and the engine used here doesn’t do that. (Yes, you can change out of plate armor between sword-thrusts; the only thing preventing players from noticing this is that you usually don’t have any motivation to do so. Everyone should be wearing their best equipment all the time.)

1 Comment so far

  1. Diezer on 16 Oct 2010

    The ability to swap out armor in the old SSI gold box AD&D games is rather odd and goes directly against the pen and paper mechanics of AD&D. That being said, it actually is extremely useful in the games after PoR where you can “dual class” the human characters. It is quite useful to have a fighter/thief (doesn’t have to be human for this example) swap out to leather armor for a few back stabs (restricted by armor) before going back to superior protection or perhaps if you have a human fighter/mage to remove that plate 2 for one round to crank out a fireball before shrugging it back on to continue trading blows with your longsword.

    Many people have used hex-editors and memory cheats to make the game play of these classics easier but some decent strategy coupled with the “built-in” loop holes can really make the difference in a hard fight.

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