Archive for January, 2010

Might and Magic: Mapping the Outdoors

I haven’t made a lot of progress in Might and Magic yet. Mainly I’ve been exploring, trying things out, picking fights to see how tough various creatures are — learning through failure is more attractive when death has no lasting consequences. I was uneasy at first about venturing out of the starting town, but it turns out that outdoors is where the real loot is (that’s accessible to level-1 characters, anyway). So I’m contemplating the task of mapping the outdoors.

The entire world of Varn (where M&M takes place) is composed of 16×16 grids. Wizardry‘s dungeon levels were 20×20, which is a more natural number for a human, but 16 is more natural for a computer: every grid reference fits neatly into a single byte. I imagine that this compactness was appealing to the programmer who had to fit the whole of the world onto a floppy disk: although the individual map levels are smaller than Wizardry‘s, it makes up for it by having a lot more of them. Wizardry III apparently has six dungeon levels; one of the major M&M quests apparently involves six castles, each presumably with multiple levels, and that’s in addition to the sundry towns, the freestanding caves, and of course the overland map, which is a 5×4 grid of 16×16 sub-grids. (The outdoors is at a larger scale, so that an entire town fits into a single outdoor map tile.) This hierarchical nature makes the output of the Location spell a bit confusing at first: casting it from inside a town or dungeon, you get three sets of grid references, indicating your main map sector, the coordinates of the town or dungeon in that sector, and your coordinates within the town. (And the coordinates aren’t even given in terms of compass directions, but rather, as X and Y.)

You can walk between adjacent outdoor map sectors, provided there isn’t a mountain range or something in the way, but the sectors are clearly isolated units all the same. You can’t see into adjacent sectors. There always seems to be a passable-but-obscuring forest or something in the way. This makes sense, when you think about it: the whole game engine is clearly organized around dealing with only one 16×16 chunk at a time. And that means it’s reasonable to map it as isolated sectors, just like you map a dungeon one level at a time.

But I might not do it that way. When you come down to it, the world isn’t really all that big. A 5×4 grid of 16×16 tiles coms out to 80×64 — at five squares per inch (my preferred grade of graph paper), this comes out to about 16×13 inches. Paper is certainly manufactured in sheets that large, but it would probably be more convenient to use A4, which would mean spreading it out among four sheets, probably splitting it into two 32×32 sections and two 48×32 sections, leaving ample room for notes. But we’ll see how it goes. Mapping the outdoors may not even be necessary: the game comes with a map. It’s an illustrative map, and not precise to the level of map tiles, but it may well be good enough for general navigation in an environment that doesn’t play the cruel tricks that Wizardry does.

Might and Magic, Book 1: Secret of the Inner Sanctum

I have to admit that what little I know about the Might and Magic series comes from its spin-off series, the Heroes of Might and Magic turn-based strategy games. I was curious enough about where it all came from to pick up the Ultimate Might and Magic Archives when it was released in 1998 as publicity for Might and Magic VI, but not curious enough to actually get around to playing it until now. Presumably the package was named by the same committee as the Ultimate Wizardry Archives; it isn’t exactly “ultimate” today, containing the first five of what is now a nine-game series. It’s a pretty nicely-put-together package, though, containing several handsome and colorful world maps on stiff paper, which fit neatly in a 6×9 envelope along with a compact booklet containing summarized instructions and spell descriptions. The full manuals are in PDF format on the disc, rather than in a thick book the way Ultimate Wizardry Archives did it.

Am I mentioning Wizardry a lot? I shall continue to do so. Might and Magic, it turns out, is a Wizardry clone. At the navigation level, it plays so much like Wizardry, with even the same visible distance and everything, that I’m finding the minor differences in the controls quite disconcerting. (Where in Wizardry the down-arrow key did an about-face, in M&M it moves you backward without turning.) I’ll note just three major differences that I’ve noticed so far in what little time I’ve spent playing:

mm1-townFirst and most visibly, there’s the graphics. Instead of line drawings, we get textures, like in The Bard’s Tale. Remember when I said that Wizardry‘s minimalism holds up better than more ambitious graphics from the same era? This game is a good example of what I was thinking of. The wall textures just scream “The programmer who drew me was really pushing the limits of Apple II hi-res mode!” The PC version is actually capable of running in 640×400 EGA mode 1[23 January] It turns out that EGA doesn’t have a 640×400 mode. I think the emulator I’m using is automatically upscaling. Still, it’s definitely using multiple pixels to represent each Apple II pixel. Apple II hi-res mode pixels are just freakishly elongated., but faithfully imitates the pixel size (and, where relevant, the dithering) of the Apple II version throughout, eight EGA pixels to every Apple one. Because this isn’t a perfect fit to the Apple pixel aspect ratio, the scenes are stretched out horizontally somewhat relative to the original. And yes, the game does credit the programmer as an artist. It also credits a couple of artists who aren’t credited as programmers, but I think they must have worked mostly on the monster illustrations.

Secondly, the first-person view extends to more of the world than in Wizardry. The earlier Wizardry games, at least, are played entirely in the dungeon (even if they sometimes try to pretend that it’s something other than a dungeon); the town is nothing more than a series of text-based menus. In M&M, as in The Bard’s Tale before it, the towns (plural) are something you can explore, and where you can be attacked by monsters while walking around. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, though, the starting town looks like a dungeon. Enough so that it’s actually worked into the fiction: mention is made of how the towns moved underground as a defense against dragons. mm1-outdoorsThe wilderness outside is also explorable, and rendered in the same engine, which looks fairly ludicrous: the world is plainly made of square partitions with pictures of forests and mountains wallpapered onto them.

Thirdly, the game is a great deal gentler than Wizardry. Characters reduced to zero hit points are not dead, but merely unconscious, and can be revived by means of a simple healing spell (even in the middle of combat). Even if you suffer a total party kill, the only consequence is that you start over from the last time you stopped at an inn. In this respect, it’s a lot more like a modern CRPG: nothing permanently bad happens. It’s making me a little worried, though: I created my current party thinking of it as a test run, but if they can’t get killed off for good, maybe I should have spent more time rerolling for better stats.

1 [23 January] It turns out that EGA doesn’t have a 640×400 mode. I think the emulator I’m using is automatically upscaling. Still, it’s definitely using multiple pixels to represent each Apple II pixel. Apple II hi-res mode pixels are just freakishly elongated.

Wizardry III: Signing Off

A TPK of my second party has left me in a poor position. Oh, it’s a better position than starting over from scratch — I meant everything I said last time about saving up the snazzy gear, and I still have a few back-up characters waiting in the wings. The highest-level one remaining is a priest, which is probably the best class to jump-start a new party, what with all those healing and protection spells. Nonetheless, the plan was to pull out a new game every two weeks, and since it’s pretty much time for that, I’ll take this as an opportunity to bow out for a while.

It’s funny. After mastering dungeon levels 2 and 3 so handily, I really thought I was going to finish the game before my self-imposed deadline. But that sort of attitude just encourages recklessness, and this is a game that rewards patience — the reward being those “I can’t believe I actually pulled that off” moments, rendered meaningful by the very real possibility of failure with major consequences. With that and the major role of randomization, the game plays more like gambling than most CRPGs do, albeit gambling where the odds are really tilted in your favor, however it seems sometimes.

I do want to get back to it, and will probably take it up as this year’s game-to-play-between-other-games. As I mentioned before, I’m finding it’s a good thing to play on the bus with a laptop: it occupies the attention, but doesn’t absorb it so much that you miss your stop. Dealing with maps on the bus is awkward, but that just means mapping is best done at home and the bus is better for grinding. After you’ve spent some time grinding on a level, you don’t even really need to consult a map very often; you just develop an orbit that takes in a few guaranteed monster encounters and returns to the exit.

Maps are still necessary if you trigger a teleport trap, mind you. Traps are the single deadliest things in the game — my latest TPK was the result of triggering a teleport trap and winding up in a place that I was in no position to get through, and in the near-TPK I described last post, the reason my party was mostly poisoned was a gas cloud trap. Traps are also completely avoidable: they’re only found on treasure chests, and opening treasure chests is optional. But pass them up and you’ll never get the buff gear that makes it so easy to train up your replacements. I’ll admit that it’s kind of a circular argument, but there it is.

Next up: Another old RPG from an anthology package! I have a lot of those. If I stick to schedule, it’ll be mid-March before I play anything else.

Wizardry III: Leapfrogging

I’m recovering from another TPK. It was a pretty anticlimactic one, too. I had just gone through a heroic effort to bring my party back unharmed from a one-way trip into a lengthy sequence of unexplored tunnels — basically, the previously-unexplorable reaches of dungeon level 2. The monsters back there don’t pose a serious threat to me any more, except perhaps through slow attrition after I run out of spells, but there was one complication: most of my party was poisoned, and losing health just from walking around. Not only that, but there was a point where the only way forward required a password. After guessing wrong twice, I really thought I that was it, but, in classic storytelling form, I solved the riddle on my third try. And I made it out without loss of life. It was the sort of adventure that leaves you elated for having beaten the odds. And then, on my next try, I blundered into a previously-unseen boss lair, was surprised, and bam. I couldn’t even run away.

Fortunately, I had another party waiting in the wings: the reclaimed remains of my last TPK. They’re not quite as advanced as the ones newly-lost, but they’re pretty close. The only real drag on my progress right now is the need to train up a new mage, as I seem to be fresh out of mages. In fact, I should probably train two. Two in the hand is worth one lying inert on the dungeon floor, right? After all, I’d be in really bad shape if the party I’m currently using got wiped out too.

But not as bad as you’d think. Spending a long time in a particular area of the dungeon means picking up a lot of redundant magic items. Even if I had to start over with level 1 characters, I think I could get through the opening stages of the game again pretty quickly if the entire front row started with +1 plate mail. Which means I have to make sure to actually give the spare gear to someone not currently adventuring. This is certainly doable, but it goes somewhat against instinct, and involves fiddling around with menus instead of just selling your loot and going straight back into the dungeon.

Still, one thing is clear: I’m going to need a much more powerful party to do the rescue this time. My best characters are going to rot in a heap until they aren’t nearly my best characters any more.

Wizardry III: Combat

I’ve survived another trip to dungeon level 4. It was a close thing, though: fully half my party was dead by the time I made it out. (Fortunately, they all survived resurrection.) This time, though, it wasn’t due to any individual encounter. It’s because I spent too long wandering the dungeon and getting into fights. Not deliberately, either: I hit a teleporter I didn’t know about, and had to find a way back to the exit through uncharted ground. The upside is that it’s not uncharted any more.

Since the primary distinguishing feature of my last session was more fights than I wanted, let’s talk a bit about what fights are like. The Wizardry combat system is the basis of turn-based combat in so many RPGs, notably including Final Fantasy. It’s all turn-based, or, more precisely, it’s what’s been called a “phased” system: you give every character their instructions for the round — whether to attack or cast a spell or whatever — and then there’s a certain amount of randomness in the ordering of the results, weighted by experience level and Agility. This includes the actions of the monsters.

Monsters come in homogeneous stacks, with up to four stacks per encounter, but act individually. The stacks (or “groups”, as the docs call them) are significant to the mechanics: when you specify a target for a spell or an attack, you specify the group, not the individual. Many of the combat spells affect an entire group at a time, which makes a sufficiently-advanced mage vastly more powerful than an equally-advanced fighter, who can kill at most one creature per round. Past a certain point, the fighter has only two purposes in the party: meat-shield, and conserving the mage’s spells by killing the less-threatening monsters the slow way.

Not that this makes them less crucial as parts of the party! Mages really, really need their meat-shields, because it’s the only kind of shield they can use. Although the interface doesn’t indicate this clearly, the party is divided into two rows. Only the first three slots are in melee range of the monsters. I don’t mean that there’s a reduced chance of hitting the back row, I mean the back row can’t be targeted by physical attacks at all. This is why samurai and lords are so valuable: they’re spellcasters that you can put in the front row without getting them killed. They are, in effect, their own meat-shields. Priests are almost as good in this role, in that they can wear armor that’s almost as good as a fighter’s, and in addition can carry enough healing power to compensate for the difference. But I’m still somehow not comfortable putting more than one priest in front.

Mind you, even in the back row, you’re vulnerable to spells. This is something I remember coming as a bit of a shock when I first encountered spellcasting monsters on dungeon level 2 of Wizardry I. I had gotten used to wiping out the monsters with group damage spells, and suddenly they were easily wiping me out using exactly the same techniques. It seemed somehow unfair, despite being symmetrical. Or, well, not entirely symmetrical: spellcasting monsters tend to come in groups, which increases their chance of getting in the first cast, which can determine the outcome of the entire battle. It’s a good thing that your initiative goes up with your experience level.

Frequently, combat begins with a surprise round, in which only one side gets to attack. The interesting thing about this is that you can’t cast spells in a surprise round, which completely changes the dynamic. The priestly ability to dispel undead isn’t considered a spell, so that’s pretty much your only option for disposing of monsters en masse. Until, that is, you realize that this is what scrolls are for. I had written them off as worthless at first, just an expensive way of getting the equivalent of an extra spell slot, but a Katino (sleep) scroll used in a surprise round against against a group of spellcasters has on more than one occasion prevented them from getting off a single spell.

Wizardry III: Leveling

Well, it happened, just like I said it would: I got cocky. My rapid mastery of dungeon levels 2 and 3 led to a total party kill on level 4. The really galling thing here is that my first foray to that depth was relatively placid: I explored a small area, enough to find a quick one-way route back to town, which seems pretty important, given how long it takes to get to and from that level by the front entrance (and how many encounters you’d have along the way, and what shape your party will be in on the way out). On the second trip, I tried to just do a sweep to that exit, but got slaughtered en route. I’ll want to pick up their corpses at some point, but for the moment, they’re out of reach. The one time I attempted that level with another party, I was beaten back; by the time I completed the return journey the long way, only one member of the party remained alive. Most of the rest resurrected successfully, but it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to make more progress until I’ve improved my defenses to the maximum possible extent.

And that’s been a bit of a problem. The dead party had better armor than you can buy in the store, and better also than what I’ve been able to find since. Even worse, my new priest has been strangely unable to master Maporfic. This is a priest spell — all of the spell in the game have nonsense names — a spell that improves the entire party’s armor class, and lasts for the entire expedition, until you go back to town. (Or until you hit an anti-magic field, I suppose, but I haven’t run into any of those yet.) Since it offers potentially unlimited protection for a single casting cost, Maporfic quickly becomes a part of your regular routine on entering the dungeon. I certainly don’t dare consider braving level 4 again without it. But at this point, it’s starting to look like the quickest way to get it will be to create a new priest.

To fully understand my problem, you have to understand how leveling works, and just how random it is. And since leveling up is the focus of my attention at this point, it seems a good time to describe it in detail. As usual, killing monsters (or even just passively standing and watching the rest of the party kill monsters) yields experience points, which yield character levels at exponentially-increasing intervals. Unusually for a CRPG, you don’t gain experience levels in the dungeon; you have to explicitly stay at the Adventurer’s Inn back in town. Sending each party member to the inn becomes part of the post-adventure routine, just like selling your loot. If you failed to level, you get a report of how many more experience points you need; if you succeed, you get a report of exactly how it changed you. You always gain at least one hit point on leveling, but frequently only one — although sometimes you’ll wind up gaining twenty. (As a point of comparison, all level-1 characters have 8 hit points.) Some of your stats will increase by one, but others will decrease by one, with no discernable pattern, except that higher experience levels seem to make increases more likely. At low levels, net stat loss on leveling is not unusual. (I have one fighter in my party whose IQ stat is down to 0; I think it’s possible for it to even go negative.) I know I keep saying this, but: No one would design a game like this today. The whole idea of rewarding experience with random decreases in power seems downright perverse by modern standards. But really, it isn’t as bad as it seems, because the increase in overall power from just being a higher experience level more than compensates for such losses.

Leveling is also how you learn spells. It’s the only way to learn spells, and it’s just as random. Spells come in seven levels, and there are limits on how soon you can learn them (with pure mages and priests getting access to higher spell levels at lower experience levels than bishops, samurai, or lords), but once you have access to a spell level, you’ll just pick up the spells in it at random as you gain experience levels. But it’s quite possible to start picking up level 5 spells before you’ve got all the level 4’s. Quite possible, and quite frustrating.

The one upside of spending three or four experience levels trying to get a particular spell is that, when you’re done, you have a character who’s three or four experience levels higher than before. Even if I decide to give up and power-level up a new priest, having a high-level healer around will expedite it. The amount of time you can spend in the more experience-rich parts of the dungeon is limited mainly by the amount of healing magic you have available.

Wizardry III: Graphics

The bulk of dungeon level 3 is taken up with a big mass of one-way walls. These are in some ways equivalent to one-way doors, in that they allow you to pass through in only one direction, except that from the passable direction they’re completely invisible. The effect is fearsome. Before this point, you could rely on having an escape route behind you most of the time, and even the introduction of one-way doors meant that getting cut off was the result of a conscious decision to go through an unexplored door. But now, any step can cut you off. Even worse, though, the geography simply doesn’t make intuitive sense any more.

The underlying model must involve separate records for each map tile for what lies in each of the four directions, because there’s clearly nothing enforcing consistency between adjacent tiles. Presumably the renderer has some way to determine which tiles to consult about what to render for each particular wall slot — for example, tiles to the left of the player’s view determine the visibility of their own left walls but not their right walls. This is all more complicated than the contemporary 3D dungeons in the Ultima series, which were simply grids of blocks, each of which could be either solid or empty. In fact, it’s kind of like a primitive version of portal rendering, with each map tile treated as its own sector. (The effect of looking into a teleporter square is particularly suggestive of this: the renderer displays the sectors adjacent to the teleporter’s destination. Which can be really confusing if you don’t know there’s a teleporter there.)

wiz3-corridorNote that when I say “primitive”, I mean primitive. We’re talking low-res black-and-white line drawings here. Any significant dungeon features other than walls and doors — whether it’s a staircase, a signpost, an altar, or a mysterious cloaked figure beckoning to you — is rendered as a smudge on the floor. Even worse, the player character apparently has tunnel vision: the view is only three tiles wide. I suppose it was optimized for corridors, where all you need to see is the walls to your left and right, and the immediate entrance to any side corridor. wiz3-distantwallBut there are a lot of wide-open spaces in this game — or, in the case of dungeon level 3, spaces that look wide-open from one side. You can be facing a distant wall (where “distant” means four tiles away, the longest distance you can see) and see only three little wall segments in the middle of the screen. The kicker is that Wizardry III is a step up from the original Wizardry engine. The original versions of I and II put their line drawings in one small corner of the screen in order to make room for the party stats and other information. Wizardry III (and versions of I and II ported to the Wizardry III engine) renders full-screen line drawings, and overlays information windows on top of it as and when needed.

Still, I can’t help but feel like the graphics here have stood up to time better than the graphics in more advanced games like The Bard’s Tale. As with the pixel art beloved of indie game developers, it’s primitive enough to have a minimalist aesthetic. There is no unnecessary detail, just enough to convincingly put you in a barren and claustrophobic network of corridors. Which means it’s a little embarrassing when the in-game text tells you that you stand before a mighty castle or you’re on the shore of a lake or something. Just let it be what it is, guys.

Wizardry III: Alignment

Dungeon level 2 is thoroughly explored now, or at least the parts that are reachable initially. This level introduces one-way doors, which can really mess up your plans to retreat to the exit at the first sign of trouble. If I’m not mistaken, this is terra incognita for me, an area that I didn’t figure out how to get to the first time I attempted this game. I had skipped to level 3, which you can reach directly from level 1, but the passage to level 2 eluded me, and I erroneously thought it must have something to do with the few bits in level 1 that aren’t directly reachable without a teleport spell (which is one of the last spells you get). There’s some guidance in the game, but the most direct statement of what I was doing wrong and how to fix it flashed by too fast to read, and possibly even to fast to notice. This is one of the few cases where the game makes the mistake of assuming things about the speed of your PC. DOSBox to the rescue!

The key is that the level is alignment-locked. You aren’t allowed in if there’s anyone evil in your party. For all I know, you might not even be allowed in if there’s anyone neutral in your party; I’ve been shying away from neutrality as limiting my characters’ options for advancement. See, there are alignment restrictions on class. Samurai can’t be evil, Thieves can’t be good, Lords can only be good, and Ninjas can only be evil. Priests and Bishops can be good or evil, but not neutral. There are no neutral-only classes.

The chief way that alignment affects gameplay is that characters aren’t allowed to join a party containing anyone of the opposite alignment. (Neutral characters are always welcome.) For the most part, then, “good” and “evil” are just arbitrary designators for two teams, like “red” and “blue”. I can’t speak about the habits of other people, but when I personally played Wizardry I, I tended to maintain two separate party rosters, one for each team, with some neutral crossover characters, who consequently tended to level a lot faster. After all, I wanted to try every class.

There is one sort of moral choice in the game, however: every once in a while, randomly-encountered monsters are “friendly” — they don’t attack you, and you get to choose whether or not to pick a fight with them anyway. (This seems to only happen with monsters that are significantly weaker than you, which makes the designation “friendly” seem like a polite euphemism.) If you fight them, there’s a chance that some good characters in your party will turn evil; if you don’t, there’s a chance that some evil characters will turn good. In this way, it’s possible to wind up with a mixed good/evil party, but only for the duration of the current session: every time you start up the game, you have to form a party from scratch, and you won’t be allowed to choose the same characters as before if some of them are on opposite teams now. Interestingly, neutral characters never change alignment this way. I recall reading somewhere that this mechanic was only introduced in Wizardry III, although I can’t personally confirm this: I can’t run my original Wizardry I disks on my current system (which lacks a 5-1/4 inch floppy drive), and the version included in the Ultimate Wizardry Archives is actually a port of Wizardry I to the Wizardry III engine, with the same alignment mechanics as the latter. If true, it strikes me as a pretty major change to the game mechanics for an otherwise-faithful port. I mean, without the ability to change alignment, you’d never have Ninjas and Lords adventuring together.

Systems of moral choice in games haven’t really come very far since those days. In a lot of cases, the difference between good and evil is simply a matter of which menu-based dialog items you choose. Wizardry III at least grounds its moral system in game mechanics. But the difference between good and evil is still mainly a tactical one. There will come times when friendly monsters get in your way while you’re making a break for the exit, depleted of spells. You really want to just let them go, but you’re trying to train up a Ninja and don’t want to spoil things. What do you do?

Wizardry III: Mapmaking

By now, I’m no longer just patrolling the corridor immediately around the stairs out. I’ve explored dungeon level 1 rather thoroughly, making a map as I go. Mapmaking is an essential part of Wizardry. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that you need to make a map or you’ll get lost and not be able to find the exit and run out of healing spells and die in the maze. All that is true, of course, but what I really mean is that mapmaking is a vital part of the feel of the game.

For one thing, adding an automapping system would take away a large part of the game’s challenge. The designers used all sorts of tricks to make the dungeons confusing: map tiles that spin you to face a different direction, teleporters that send you to identical-looking areas without you noticing, one-sided walls, and so forth. Yes, even the architecture hates you in this game. There’s a mage spell that tells you your absolute position in the dungeon, but your spellcasting capacity is limited, and the particularly devious areas have anti-magic fields. The first dungeon level of Wizardry III is relatively gentle: all it has is some disorienting corridor layouts. But I recall from my previous explorations, years ago, that there’s one level that’s basically a big grid with a spinner square at every intersection. 1[Addendum 14 January] My mistake: it turns out that this was in Wizardry IV. Care and meticulousness is required.

But also, there’s simply a kind of joy, largely lost in modern titles, of creating something tangible as a result of playing a game. Mapmaking is lke a little arts-and-crafts project, with an end product that you can tack to the wall, and look at, and remember the effort that went into it. (It’s even better when the game gives you an excuse to use colored pencils, but that would seem a little strange for Wizardry‘s monochrome wireframe dungeons.) While it’s true that text adventures also support mapping by hand, that feels very different to me. My adventure maps, when I bother making them, tend to be rough scribbles, not the neat and attractive grid of a Wizardry. Partly this is because adventure game maps are essentially the same sort of thing as taking notes: they provide situationally useful information, and that’s it. Wizardry maps provide situationally useful information and reveal large-scale regularity, patterns that enhance the experience even when recognizing them isn’t useful to beating the game. I don’t want to overstate the artistry involved here, mind you. One of the levels in Wizardry 1 was based around a set of corridors in the shape of the author’s initials; that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here. But it is what it is.

1 [Addendum 14 January] My mistake: it turns out that this was in Wizardry IV.

Wizardry III: Level 2

After many trips into the dungeon, and many deaths and TPKs, I finally managed to get one of my Bishops up to level 2. This is a big achievement! Having just one level-2 character provides enough leverage to get others over that hurdle, and before long I had a party of about level 4 on average. I’m still not taking great chances, though. It’s all too easy to get cocky. I haven’t even really begun exploring the dungeon yet; at low levels, you really want to bolt for the exit after every fight, to rest and replenish your spells. (You can’t rest in the dungeon itself, although, since you can’t cast spells in town, the dungeon is the best place to heal.)

Adventuring parties consist of up to six characters. You can send fewer if you like — if you intend to drag characters from previous expeditions back to town for resurrection, for example, each requires an empty slot in your party — but keeping a full roster of combatants is the best way to win fights. After I became more powerful, though, I started putting a thief in the party. Level-1 thieves don’t really count as combatants, because they’re so rubbish at combat. Their armor restrictions make them so vulnerable, you pretty much have to keep them in the back row with the mages. But at least the mages are useful back there. The thief can’t do anything from the back row but wait for everyone else to finish the fight. His sole role, at this stage of the game, is to help you get cash faster by removing traps from the chests that monsters seem to carry around a lot. But that’s a pretty important role, because it’s virtually impossible to get enough cash to resurrect anybody without those chests.

In fact, before I brought in the thief, most of my money came from new characters. Every character you import is completely stripped of experience and equipment, but gets to bring a small amount of cash to get started — just enough to buy some basic armor and a weapon. But you don’t really need to buy armor and weapons for every single soul who whirls through the game and into the graveyard. As long as someone in the party makes it back to town alive, you can strip the dead guys of their belongings and hand them over to the new guys. The more characters go through that revolving door, the more unused cash you can siphon off of them. Taking advantage of this mechanic is pretty much necessary. A patient player could even keep churning until they have the best purchaseable equipment in the game without entering the dungeon at all. But I am not that patient, and besides, I kind of look askance at such abuses. But not too far askance, because I think it likely that the designers had this gimmick in mind.

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