Archive for September, 2022

Wizardry’s Influence

I keep calling the Wizardry “seminal” and “influential”, and it’s plain to see that loads of other early CRPGs like The Bard’s Tale and Might and Magic are shamelessly imitating it, but what exactly do more modern games owe it? It’s an interesting question. We can set aside the things it inherits from D&D. We can probably even discount the first-person view, which was invented independently in Ultima and its predecessor, Akalabeth, albeit with a simpler model that doesn’t allow for things like one-way walls.

Most of the things that are obvious Wizardry innovations are obvious precisely because they’re not widely-imitated any more, but we can pinpoint a few things that still get used occasionally. The whole business of an extended character roster that only comes together to form parties on a per-session basis has fallen out of favor for most CRPGs, but still forms the basis of Pokémon — not to mention Darkest Dungeon, which uses the construction to great effect by forcing you to give individual characters downtime between missions. (In a way, Wizardry does that too; it just calls the needs-downtime status “Dead”.) Also, the abstraction of positioning into a mere pair of rows, a front row for melee fighters and a back row for casters or anyone you’re trying to protect, was adopted by every Final Fantasy game up to IX.

But I think we can see more influence in the mechanics we now take for granted. Like spell slots — the idea that casters can cast a limited number of spells of each spell level, but the spells themselves are chosen on the fly. Remember that in D&D at the time, all spells were chosen in advance. Slots were clearly a simplification meant to reduce the amount of state associated with each character: instead of a list of as many as 63 prepared spells, a maxed-out caster just has a list of seven numbers from 1 to 9. So it’s a little ironic that this innovation was later embraced by tabletop D&D while CRPGs tended to opt instead for a mana system, where you have just one pool of magic power that different spells use in different mounts.

Similarly, as far as I’ve been able to tell, Wizardry may well be the first RPG, computer or tabletop, to use a “point buy” system for assigning character stats, rather than simply randomizing them. The fact that it chooses to add in an element of randomization anyway, by randomizing the number of points you have to assign, certainly makes it seem like the whole idea was novel and not yet fully trusted.

I recall that 4th edition D&D was criticized in its day for swiping ideas from World of Warcraft. But really, this sort of swiping has been going on for a long time.

Wizardry III: The End of Level 1

The premise of Wizardry III is that the descendants of the legendary heroes are sent to end a series of cataclysms by retrieving the Orb of Earithin from the great dragon L’kbreth, who may or may not be the dragon depicted in the cover art of Wizardry I. (Given the origin of the names Werdna and Trebor, I keep looking at these names, crafted in a void of etymological context, to see if I can find other names encoded in them. “Luck breath” feels too obvious to be right.) L’kbreth is devoted to balance, so her mountain lair is designed in such a way that only good and evil working together can approach her. Whether the idea is to pass her trials and be found worthy or just kill her and seize the orb, I don’t yet know.

Also, that “mountain lair” detail means dungeon levels go up instead of down, not that it makes much difference. But at least it’s an attempt to make the environment a little less abstract. The same can be said of the lake and castle on level 1 — perhaps we’re supposed to be pretending that the entire first level is set outdoors. The castle is described in a text passage when you approach it, but of course the engine here is incapable of rendering an actual castle; it’s barely capable of rendering a corridor. But there’s a castle-shaped region, in the middle of a “moat”, which is to say, a wider loop of corridor where you can encounter “moat monsters”. (It seems like the moat monsters pop up randomly, but possibly they’re fixed encounters at specific points in the moat, like bosses. I don’t think the system actually supports random encounters that are localized to anything smaller than an entire level.) At each corner, the castle has a protrusion like a tower, but of course it’s not a tower, it’s just a little loop of rooms in a shape that suggests a tower. We’re not in a castle, we’re in a picture of a castle, drawn with walls.

I was hesitant to approach the castle at first, because of the sign in front of the moat saying “Beware of moat monsters”, but now that my team is strong enough to more or less freely explore level 1 without any real danger, I’ve gone through it, past the boss encounter, and to the stairs in the back that lead up to level 2. And with level 2, we’re back to nonrepresentational dungeon design, a map made of confusingly similar polyominoes that you really need to map to not get lost in. By contrast, I’m not consulting the map at all as I make my way through level 1 to reach it. And while that’s undoubtably in part just because I’m more familiar with it from going through it so many more times, I think the fact that it has recognizable landmarks like the lake and the castle helps as well.

Wizardry III: The Salutory Effects of Caution

I’m probably being too cautious, if such a thing is possible. I’ve got a full roster of 20 characters with experience levels ranging from 3 to 7, and I’m making a point of swapping out the higher-level ones and always having a low-level guy in the back row who I’m training up. If I keep it up, I’ll never be in the demoralizing state of “My A team just got TPKed and everyone else is so far behind them!” — there is no A team, just individuals who are temporarily ahead of the pack.

As a result, I’m getting an extended tour of aspects of the low-level stuff that I kind of skipped over in Wiz1&2 with the help of Murphy’s Ghost. At level 5, your primary spellcasters start to learn third-level spells, which means your priests finally get LOMILWA. Before that, there can actually be secret doors you’re not aware of. Mages, at the same point, get MAHALITO, the first direct damage that affects an entire group, and although I seldom used it at all with my power-leveled heroes in the previous episodes, it’s as much of a game-changer here as Fireball is in D&D. How do you deal with big stacks before you get it? Mainly with KATINO, the sleep spell, followed by your front-row fighters hurrying to slaughter them by hand before they wake up. There are spells to improve your armor class and to unimprove that of your opponents, but I haven’t found them worthwhile at this level — when you don’t have a lot of spell slots, you want to use them on things that can take enemies out of battle entirely, not just give you a relative advantage.

The most absurd result of my craven tactics is an overabundance of bishops. Why bishops? Because bishops are the spellcasting class it makes the most sense to put in your party at level 1. A level 1 mage has two mage spell slots, and a level-1 priest has two priest spell slots, but a level-1 bishop has two of each type. (This was not the case in Wizardry 1, where bishops didn’t start to learn priest spells until level 4. I guess the “legacy” process really does make a difference.) So when you’re in the “send hordes of characters into the dungeon and get most of them killed” stage, it just doesn’t make sense to create spellcasters other than bishops. Before I made level 2, every party I sent down there consisted of three fighters and three bishops. But the fighters, being fighters, tended to get killed, while most of the bishops survived. And because of my policy that anyone with XP is precious and shouldn’t be cast away lightly, they’re still hanging around, slowing down the leveling-up process through sheer numbers.

Wizardry: Magic Words

I’ve mentioned a few times that Wizardry uses nonsense words for spells. When you bring up a character’s spell list, it’s displayed as just magic words, with no indication of what they do (this being instead detailed in the manual with just a few inaccuracies); when you cast a spell, you actually type the magic words in. 1Unless it’s CALFO, the spell for detecting traps on chests, which can only be cast from a menu. You learn the words and their meanings pretty quickly, at least for the more useful spells. Once you have a sufficiently powerful priest, you begin every delve with a benediction: MAPORFIC, LOMILWA, LATUMAPIC! These three spells improve your party’s armor class, provide light, and identify every monster you encounter, and last until you leave the dungeon or they’re dispelled.

The interesting thing about these words is that they’re convincingly made up of morphemes. There are recurring stems and affixes. Your basic level-1 fire spell, HALITO, is clearly the basis for the more powerful MAHALITO and LAHALITO, and similarly KATINO, the level 1 sleep spell, gives us the group instant-death spells MAKANITO and LAKANITO, even if they do rearrange the letters a bit. DALTO, which does cold damage, only gets up to MA-. MOLITO (electrical damage) doesn’t get any prefixes at all, but the ending -LITO is suggestively similar to HALITO. Maybe, in this fictional language’s fictional history, DALTO was once spelled DALITO. Even if not, the ending -TO always seems to signify an attack of some kind.

Healing spells go DIOS, DIAL, DIALMA — is that the same MA that we just saw as a prefix? — followed by the resurrection spell, which is simply DI, then MADI, which does a full heal and cures all status conditions. Every single spell in the DI chain has an opposite, formed by prefixing it with BA: BADIOS, BADIAL, etc. Priests are generally more useful as healers than as direct damage dealers that aren’t quite as good at it as mages, but the symmetry is pleasing for its own sake. (Although it’s slightly broken by DIALKO, a spell for curing paralysis, which has no corresponding BADIALKO for inflicting it.)

There’s a level 2 priest spell MATU that improves the party’s armor class by 2 points for the duration of combat, and a level 3 spell BAMATU that improves it by 4 points. But wait, doesn’t BA mean opposite?

Strangely, the spell LATUMAPIC, mentioned above, is clearly a combination of pieces from LATUMOFIS and DUMAPIC, which respectively cure poison and reveal your current map coordinates. It’s not clear how those things relate to identifying monsters, but etymology isn’t always obvious.

Mind you, there are several magic words with no apparent relation to to any other: KALKI, CALFO, LOKTOFEIT, ZILWAN. TILTOWAIT, the mage’s most powerful direct damage spell, and KADORTO, the priest spell for resurrecting someone who was reduced to ash by a failed resurrection attempt, both seem to be the names of gods in the setting. More interesting are the ambiguous ones. Is the LOR in LORTO (a priest spell that attacks with conjured blades) the same as the LOR in MALOR (teleport)? I can stretch to see some sense in that, but it would be more certain if there were any other LOR words. Is KANDI, a spell for locating stranded characters, made of KAN + DI? If so, is that the same KAN as in LITOKAN, a fire spell for priests? Every direct damage spell in the game that isn’t an inverted healing spell ends with -TO, except for LITOKAN, which puts it in the middle.

At one point in Wizardry I, and another point in Wizardry II, there’s a room in the dungeon where a little man in a robe sends you back to town by incanting “MAPIRO MAHAMA DIROMAT”. None of these are spells we know — the closest is MAHAMAN, a top-tier mage spell that calls on the gods for a large favor at the cost of an entire experience level, and which could conceivably be the same word as MAHAMA with a different grammatical ending. But the rest is obscure; the only familiar part is the MA in MAPIRO, which could just as easily really be the MAP seen in DUMAPIC. The big problem with these Heaven’s Vault-ish deciphering attempts is that we just don’t have a lot of data to go on. There are just 50 learnable spells in the entirety of Wizardry IIV, most of them kind of redundant. I understand that there are new spells in V onward, though. That’s something to look forward to.

1 Unless it’s CALFO, the spell for detecting traps on chests, which can only be cast from a menu.

Wizardry III: Extended Level 1 Shenanigans Revisited

Despite knowing the inevitable outcome, I did bring my entire party from Wizardry II straight into Wizardry III for a ceremonial slaughtering. It just seemed wrong to do otherwise. That done, I was in for a bit of a shock: I couldn’t import any more characters. There’s a limit of 20 characters on what Wizardry misleadingly terms a “scenario disk”, and every single slot was filled with someone lying dead in the dungeon. To bring in anyone new, I’d have to delete someone. But who? My new characters? The ones that have been waiting for rescue since 2010? In the end, I opted to just wipe the disk and start over.

Now, once you’ve done such a thing once, it becomes very tempting to do it again. You lose a few parties to the maze, along with their sweet equipment. You’re only going to get a fraction of that equipment back even if you manage to recover their corpses. The dead guys are probably not worth the cost of resurrecting, and no one else has any XP. So what good is anyone? Might as well wipe the disk and stop them cluttering up the roster!

I actually tried streamlining the whole process: instead of creating a party at a time, I created 20 characters, imported them all at once, used all their gold to buy better equipment from the very start, and sent six of them into the dungeon. This might actually be closer to what the designers intended: when you’re through with Wizardry I, why wouldn’t you bring all your characters to the next game? And it worked pretty well, for a while. When one of them died, there was a replacement ready, and all I had to do was hand him the armor he had already partially paid for. But this was subject to an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket problem: when I finally did suffer a TPK, I basically lost everything. Might as well wipe the disk!

Really, I think, the key is to spread things out. XP is the real treasure here; as I noted in my 2010 posts, once you have even one level-2 character, the whole thing becomes much more survivable. So what I really should be doing is hoarding XP. When a party returns from the dungeon with more XP than they started with, don’t just send them all out again. Send one of them out again, with a bunch of new recruits wearing only as much armor as they can buy with their own funds. If they come back alive, add them to your stockpile. We’re essentially gambling here. Creating a character is ante. Sending a character with nonzero XP is a raise. You don’t want to go all in on every hand.

Wizardry III: Legacies

Coming right off of the power fantasy of Wizardry II, it’s impressive just how hard Wizardry III throws you at the wall. As you may recall from my posts of twelve years ago, Wizardry III, unlike Wizardry II, reduces imported characters to level 1. The only things you keep are your stats and your class. While this does introduce the possibility of putting a Ninja in your party from the very beginning, it remains the case that any level-1 character stands a good chance of getting killed in their very first encounter, possibly in a surprise round before you even have a chance to run away. I spoke of Wizardry II‘s eagerness to kill characters without warning, but there, it was at least always because of something the player did, and consequently learned not to do. The thing Wizardry III is teaching us not to do is go into the dungeon at all.

The in-world justification for disempowering the characters is that you’re not actually playing the same characters that you imported, but their descendants. Hence the title “Legacy of Llylgamyn”. Characters aren’t automatically reduced on import, but have to be linked into their descendants through a menu command (L)EGATE, a word that provokes etymological thoughts. (Oddly, the manual incorrectly gives the command (R)ITE OF PASSAGE for this. Were the manual and the executable in this anthology taken from different versions of the game? That would make sense for the first two games, which we know to be ports to the Wiz3 engine, but not for Wiz3 itself.)

This notion of legacy creates a false expectation. When a character wins Wizardry I or II, they’re awarded with a special mark on their stats page, like a medal in the form of an ASCII character. (In the version of Wiz1 that I played as a child, the mark was affixed to their name, but that isn’t the case here.) And these marks are inherited. Once you have a party that’s killed Werdna and recovered the Staff of Gnilda, it’s natural to think “These guys are special. They’ve got honors. These are the ones who will save the kingdom of Llylgamyn from disaster.” But then of course they all just die, and you wind up making a new party that you don’t bother going through I and II with because they’re just going to get deleveled and probably killed anyway. I can imagine getting fully-blinged-out heroes by sending a new party through I and II once you already have some powerful characters in place in III to act as bodyguards and shepherd them through the early levels, but it wouldn’t be the same. They wouldn’t feel like the real legendary heroes. They’d be more like tourists on a Legendary Hero package tour.

Which, come to think of it, fits the theme of legacy pretty well. We’re talking about creating systems to give the children of the rich and powerful a free pass and make sure they receive rewards they haven’t earned.

Wizardry II: The Final Riddle

Level 6 of Knight of Diamonds is basically a big power fantasy, sending hordes of absurdly overpowered monsters at you so you can squash them with your even more absurdly overpowered heroes. That can be fun, but I did finally decide to get on with it and win the game. You don’t even really need to visit level 6 at all to do this. The ending takes place back on level 1, where you complete your quest by handing in the outfit you collected in the boss fights of levels 1 through 5.

There’s one way that level 6 connects to the ending, though: the riddle. When you fork over your loot to the goddess Gnilda, before she bestows upon you the final macguffin, she asks you “What is the answer to the sphynx’s riddle?”. The “sphynx” in question is on level 6, guarding nothing more than a shortcut back to level 1. So you don’t even really have to deliver the answer to the being who poses the riddle in the first place, but it’s a useful way to try out guesses without consequence. If you give Gnilda the wrong answer, you still lose your stuff and get nothing in exchange.

And now this post is going to descend into griping. According to one second-hand source I’ve found online, Sir-Tech customer service fielded more complaints about that riddle than about anything else, which would explain why they left it out of the Nintendo version.

First of all, I’m not at all sure that I actually ever found the bulk of level 6 the first time I won this game. That’s because it breaks a promise. We’re told that the use of a light spell like MILWA or (preferably) LOMILWA will reveal any secret doors — and that means that secret doors basically aren’t a factor for the bulk of the game; the only times you ever don’t have a LOMILWA going are (A) when you’re too low-level to cast it (which also means you’re too low-level to be even considering transferring over to Knight of Diamonds) and (B) when you’re in a darkness field of the sort I described in my last post. I honestly have no idea which of the doors on my maps are secret ones. All doors look the same to me. Well, except for a few in the lower levels of Knight of Diamonds, which are apparently extra-secret doors, invisible even under magical light. It would have been very easy for me to not know they were there.

And that would cause some problems for the riddle. See, the sphynx tells you to find three clues scattered around the level. Recall that you can’t teleport on level 6. If you trust that walls are walls, and you’ve thoroughly looked around the small space that’s visible available, it’s hard to see where they could be scattered. What do you do then? What the game expects you to do is walk into walls just in case the rules have changed.

Still, it hardly matters, because the three clues are actually useless. Here they are, see for yourself:

That king, the king who worships gold, will no more see his treasure room

That king, the king who worships power, will have none within his tomb

That king, the king who worships these, that king, he finds doom

Now, the brief bit of lore in the single page of documentation does talk about an evil usurper and an attempt to overthrow him, using the legendary Knight of Diamonds armor, that brought down the castle and turned it into the dungeon you’ve been exploring. So you might think to try the usurper’s name, Davalpus. When that doesn’t work, you might try the only other two named characters in the story, Margda and Alavik. But in fact the answer is “THE KNIGHT OF DIAMONDS”, and I don’t see how that fits at all. It is, on the other hand, a fairly easy thing to guess if you ignore the clues. The clues actually make the riddle harder.

If I squint, I can kind of see it justified as a twist revelation, that the “king who worships gold” etc. is actually Alavik, the actually-evil ostensible hero of the backstory, or possibly the original Knight of Diamonds that the armor was made for was actually evil, or maybe it’s even describing the player characters, accumulating treasure and levels for their own sake. Revelations in the form of riddles can be highly effective — Andrew Plotkin’s System’s Twilight has some smashing puzzles of this sort, where it tells you a story and then, some time later, asks you a question about things just outside of what was narrated. There, the very posing of the question provokes reevaluation, makes you come to new realizations just by making you think about things from a new angle. If that’s what they were going for in Knight of Diamonds, all I can say is that System’s Twilight did a much better job of it. There, when I realized what the answer had to be, I knew what it meant.

Wizardry II: How Level 6 Resists Mapping

At this point, I could probably just go for the ending. The characters I imported were overpowered for the scenario, and even if they hadn’t been, the game is as eager to help you advance quickly as it is to kill you without warning. The dagger that instantly transforms a thief into a ninja, available only as a rare drop in the previous scenario, is available for purchase in the town. There are similar items findable in the dungeon for attaining the other advanced classes, and if you (justifiably) don’t trust that kind of magic and want to make Lords and Ninjas the hard way, there are items that facilitate that too, giving permanent boosts to various stats.

But even as it accelerates advancement, it slows exploration. And that’s why I haven’t ended things yet. I still want to map out the dungeon as thoroughly as I can. (That’s why I’m replaying this, remember?)

How does it impede exploration? First, there are places you can’t teleport to. Teleporting blind is a foolish gamble anyway, betting that the spot you’ve picked isn’t occupied by solid rock. But when you can’t even teleport to places you know, you lose a valuable shortcut, as well as a way to be sure where you are.

Speaking of which: There is a low-level spell called DUMAPIC that’s extremely valuable for exploring confusing areas with teleporters and spinners and indistinguishable rooms. All it does is tell you your current coordinates and heading. When the game really wants an area to be disorienting, it just disables this. There are anti-magic fields where no one, player or enemies, can cast any spells at all, but there are also specific anti-DUMAPIC fields. Such a field covers the entirety of level 6.

Even worse are the darkness fields. By default, you can see one space around you. With a spell providing light, you can see two more spaces beyond that, and that is the state in which any sane person plays most of the game. When in magical darkness, you can’t see at all. The first-person view is simply filled with a grey dither pattern. The only way to tell where the walls are is by bumping into them, making mapping slow and laborious, and at the same time absolutely necessary. Darkness is so discouraging that the first elevator back in Wizardry I is protected by nothing else, secured by just the fact that the player’s first instinct on entering darkness is just to try to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Level 6 of Knight of Diamonds combines all of this. You can’t teleport to it. Reaching it for the first time means sliding down a chute into darkness where you can’t use DUMAPIC. The only way I know to find the coordinates where the chute comes out is to teleport straight up, and cast DUMAPIC from there. There are stairs leading down from level 5, but they’re behind a one-way door; if you’re being sensible and not teleporting blind, the only way to find them is from the underside, approaching the level 5 boss backward.

Wizardry II: Riddles

The boss fight against the shield on level 2 of Knight of Diamonds is immediately preceded by something new for the engine: a riddle. Wizardry I and II have both had riddle-like things going on before this — notably, on level 1, you get a mysterious hint about how to reach the boss, but the solution there is “use a teleport spell to get past the teleport square that creates the endless-corridor effect”. But here on level 2, for the first time, the game wants you to answer in text, typing in the answer.

It’s not a difficult riddle. It goes on for so long, you’re pretty much guaranteed to figure it out before it’s over, and yet it keeps on going. The thing that impresses me is that it fits so naturally into its environment that I’m not sure I even noticed it was a new mechanic the first time I played through this episode. It just seems like an extension of two things that already existed: spots that give you a bunch of text when you step on them, and spots that block your way unless you’re carrying the right key item.

And that makes me think back to the riddles in Wonderquest. I was quite critical of those, in my most recent post on the game earlier this year. They didn’t seem to fit in at all well there, even though there were in some ways better-integrated with their environment: they had game-mechanical effects beyond letting you do something you could do if they weren’t there, and sometimes the content of the riddles concerned game content. So what gives?

I think what’s really going on is this: Wonderquest is primarily a puzzle game. Wizardry is not. It has puzzlish aspects, like confusing mazes and figuring out how to best take advantage of the mechanics, but it’s not focused on puzzles in the same way that Wonderquest is. So when we see a weak puzzle like a text riddle in Wizardry, it feels like just another manifestation of what it’s been doing all along, just extending its general design philosophy along a different branch. Whereas in Wonderquest, it feels like a downgrade, temporarily abandoning rich and complex mechanical puzzles for something relatively trivial.

Wizardry II is Mean

If I had to make a series of movies based on the Wizardry games, Knight of Diamonds would start with the heroes from the previous film. Flush from their success against Werdna, they descend cheerfully into the dungeon under Llylgamyn, encouraged by how relatively easy (but not trivial!) the opposition is. There are a few close-calls, followed by laughter and back-slapping camaraderie. Then they all suddenly get killed. The rest of the movie concerns a completely different team, inexperienced and nervous about attempting the quest that even the famous slayers of Werdna couldn’t complete.

It’s not just that the game is eager to kill your characters. That’s been a factor from the beginning. The impressive thing is how it springs it on you suddenly and unexpectedly. I found an item that, when used, grants the user a bunch of experience — not enough to gain a whole level, not at this point, but enough to get you a substantial amount of the way there. Afterwards, I noticed it was still in my inventory. Well, that’s actually fairly normal: magic items in this game don’t have charges, exactly, but they have a percent chance of breaking after each use. It looked like the idea was to keep milking this thing for XP until it broke. It turns out that when it breaks, it kills the user.

And not just kills, but renders them “Lost”. Recall that death isn’t immediately final in this game: you get a couple of chances at undoing it, either at the Temple of Cant (which costs money) or with your party’s own cleric (free, but has a greater chance of failure). If resurrection fails, the deceased is reduced to ash, which takes a more powerful/expensive resurrection spell to undo. If that fails, the character is Lost, and cannot be recovered. Here in Knight of Diamonds, the kid gloves are off and things can just send you directly to Lost, skipping the intermediary steps.

And bear in mind that this is a dungeon designed for characters who beat Wizardry I. You can import characters who haven’t finished the quest and killed Werdna, but they still need to be fairly high level to survive the encounters in the dungeon here, especially the boss fights against clothing. So every senseless death represents the loss of a significant time investment. The game just wants to periodically deliver a big setback, to pad out the play time.

When the game was new, there was at least a little recourse: when something bad happened, if you were quick enough, you could eject the floppy before anything got written to it. I kind of get the impression that by Knight of Diamonds the designers were expecting the players to do this, and compensating for it. But it’s not an option under emulation.

Anyway, in addition to losing a character to greed and hubris, I managed to instantly Lose the rest of my party by carelessly teleporting into solid rock. One moment a promising party that I expect to last the rest of the adventure with only occasional substitutions, then poof. The shock of it is an experience you’d be hard-pressed to find in modern games — on purpose, at any rate.

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