SotSB: Another End Boss Down

I defeated the end boss of Secret of the Silver Blades on my second try. The winning technique hasn’t really changed since Pool of Radiance, but at least it provided a little variation after the fact: since the Dreadlord is a lich, killing his body isn’t enough. I had to find and destroy the item containing his soul, which was guarded by a second contingent of monsters. This secondary final battle wasn’t as tough as the first, lacking spellcasters as it did, which is fortunate, because I hadn’t bothered to rest up and re-buff after the first.

In the end, my entire party survived, including Vala, the NPC who I picked up about halfway through the game. Vala, who spent the last few centuries trapped in a magical box, is the last surviving member of the warrior order called the Silver Blades — or at least, she was until the rest of the party got inducted into it shortly after finding her. Despite the fact that my characters now constitute the majority of the Silver Blades, I’m still not clear on what their secret is. Perhaps it’s more that the order itself is a secret, as one might say “the crime of murder” or “the hour of noon”, or indeed “Curse of the Azure Bonds”. At any rate, Vala is the NPC whose death I described earlier, and I’m glad I went to the trouble of going back to before she died, because she occasionally made useful comments as I explored — not often enough to become annoying, either, the way a lot of hint-providing sidekicks do — and also because she was handy to have in the final battles. I really wasn’t expecting her to stick around that long; as I mentioned before, most NPCs in this series leave the party as soon as you leave the dungeon where you find them.

But then, this entire game is, in a sense, one big dungeon. As I surmised, there is no overland map of any kind — just a phenomenally expansive bunch of tunnels. Consequently, I have no idea where it all takes place relative to the lands around the Moonsea that form the setting for the first two games in the series. And it would have been good to have some geographical connection to the other games, because there’s very little to connect it to them otherwise. The only real links we’ve got are a couple of strikingly pointless reprised minor NPCs — the council clerk from Pool of Radiance (who I could have sworn was male back then), the Red Plume mercenary captain from Curse of the Azure Bonds (now serving as town mayor in a completely different place — just how much time passed between games, anyway?). Both are so marginal that you never learn their names. I had been expecting more because of the ending to CotAB: when you finally destroy the Pool of Radiance, Tyranthraxus gloats with his dying breath that you have, in so doing, unleashed an even greater evil, or something like that. I assume that the authors meant this as a general-purpose sequel hook that could be retconned into referring to anything, but it’s hard to see how my actions there could have had any impact on the Black Circle’s already-ongoing project to free the Dreadlord.

In fact, the strongest connection to the previous games comes in the red herrings. Remember that these games have text passages (and sometimes maps) in the manual, which the player is expected to read when referenced within the game, and not before. As a punishment for the impatient, this “Journal” contains a smattering of fake entries. I read all of SotSB‘s unused Journal entries after completing the game, and it has this whole false storyline about how Tyranthraxus managed to possess the body of a mouse just before his apparent death. There’s a tavern rumor about someone seeing a glowing mouse, a wounded adventurer who saw a glowing mouse delivering orders to a bunch of monsters (in a squeaky voice), even a revelatory villain monologue by the mouse itself. I don’t recall the previous games having fakery anywhere near as cohesive as this, although maybe the imagery just stands out more here.

Overall, this is definitely the most linear game in the series so far. Apart from a couple of quick sidequests, it’s all a single journey from point A to point B, with occasional teleporters back to point A along the way. I think the designers were trying to create a certain amount of nonlinearity by putting long gaps between the places where you find crucial items and the places where you use them — for example, the whole quest for the pieces of the Staff of Oswulf in the mines doesn’t really need to be completed until you get to the gates of the castle, which lies on the other side of the glacier crevasses and an Ice Giant settlement. It might even be more satisfying to rush forward unprepared, and only go back to pick up quest tokens when they become indispensible. (At the very least, you’d know your motivations.) But personally, my long habit in CRPGs is to proceed level by level, or place by place, being as thorough as I can in exploring one thing before going on to the next. Not only does this net you all the best treasure, it smooths the way to XP without explicit grinding. I can’t imagine I’m the only one to take this approach — pretty much everyone who’s ever ascended in Nethack does something similar — but perhaps the designers of this game had a different player in mind.

Next time, 1991. I could wrap up the entire “Epic” by moving on to Pools of Darkness. But unless the readers demand it, I think I’ll do us all a favor and move onto something else for the time being. A couple of weeks ago I thought I might be eager to see how the story ends, but SotSB has kind of ruined my faith that any kind of unified story exists.

SotSB: Utility Spells

Nearly all of the spells in Secret of the Silver Blades can be divided into three categories: offense, healing, and buffs. All three categories are directly related into combat: offensive spells are for waging combat, healing is for recovering from combat, and buffs are for preparing for combat. This focus on fighting isn’t at all unusual for a CRPG. But it’s notable here because this is a D&D-based game, and it provides only a subset of the spells from D&D.

Some spells are left out because there’s no way that a computer game (especially one from 1990) could handle them adequately, like Stone Shape or Wish. The entire category of illusions relies too much on the player’s creativity and the DM’s judgment of their effects on the viewer to have a satisfying implementation here.

Other spells are left out because the simplified game mechanics leaves no room for them. I mentioned a while back how the system lacks such concepts as darkness and hunger, and thus has no way to support Light or Create Food. Languages seem to also be considered too much hassle to implement, so spells to understand or speak other languages are right out.

And some spells seem to be left out just to be difficult, and possibly to enforce the kind of gameplay that the designers want. There’s no Identify spell, for example. The game system understands the concept of identifying items, you just can’t do it with a spell. You have to take the items back to the store in town to identify them. I assume that the designers felt that the experience of looting equipment and not being able to identify it immediately was important to how they wanted the game played, either because they wanted to give the player reasons to go back to town once in a while, or because they wanted to give players the experience of experimentally trying on unidentified armor while still in the dungeon to determine which bits were worth lugging home.

There are a few pure utility spells in the game, though. There’s Knock, a spell that unlocks doors: I haven’t really needed this at all in SotSB, but there were a couple of doors in Pool of Radiance that I could open no other way. There’s Detect Magic, a useful way to separate out the better loot from an encounter, although it becomes less useful past a certain point: by the endgame, you pretty much take it for granted that everything you find is magical to some degree. Most weirdly, there’s the Read Magic spell. The only thing Read Magic does in this game is intrude on the process of copying a spell into your spellbook, putting a rather pointless extra step into the process. But I guess someone saw value in this.

It should be noted that clerics and magic-users gain spell slots at the same rate as they do in normal second-edition D&D, even though they have fewer useful things to spend them on. This contributes to the sense of monotony in the game, the way that I’ve mainly wound up casting the same combat spells over and over again. But also, there’s a kind of pressure to favor combat spells when exploring new territory (which you’re doing most of the time), because they’re more likely to be useful in an emergency. As such, having one’s primary spellcasters memorize utility spells seems like a waste of a spell slot that could be better spent on offense, healing, or buffs. But warrior-types like Rangers generally don’t cast spells in battle, because they’re better at just fighting. (You can’t even get a ranger to the point of learning Fireball in this game.) This makes them an ideal choice for memorizing utility spells, once they have enough XP to do so.

SotSB: Overall Patterns of Progress

Okay, I know I said that I was only going to give Secret of the Silver Blades one more day, but I’m giving it an extension. I’ve been making very rapid progress, and have reason to believe that I’m on the verge of getting all the way through the glacier crevasses (home to ice giants and their pet mastodons) and reaching Castle Endgame. I may be farther from the end than I think I am, but, as is often the case, the perception that I’m close to the end is spurring me to greater activity. Just as getting stuck in a game is demoralizing and makes one less inclined to pursue it enough to get unstuck, so does progress beget more progress. There’s probably a lesson for life in that.

Another thing that supports the idea that I’m almost at the end: most of my characters are level 15, which is the maximum experience level supported by this game (except for thieves, who are allowed up to level 18). My paladin is a little behind the others, because paladins need a lot more experience to level than other classes in the second-edition rules. (The idea that the experience per level varies with character class was eliminated in third edition, as part of a general effort to simplify things and reduce the number of tables needed, but that hadn’t happened yet when this game was written.) Similarly, the fighter/thief has the handicap of splitting experience between two classes.

If there’s one thing I’ve gotten from playing this entire series so far, it’s a greater appreciation of the structure of progress in (second-edition) D&D, including its failures. Magic-users turn from near wastes of space to the main thing that wins fights for you, but in the process go through a lengthy phase when they do nearly nothing but cast Fireball. Clerics become less and less useful in melee as the actual warrior-types outpace them. Fighters spend a lot of their time nearly unhittable, due to finding better and better equipment — although this is punctuated by periods of hittability, when you start encountering tougher foes that you don’t have the appropriate armor for yet. And for all classes, gaining experience levels means a great deal more at the low end. No spell I’ve learned has been as much of a game-changer as getting Fireball at level 5; no increase in the number of spell slots has been as significant as being able to cast Fireball twice at level 6. Hit points increase by an average of 100% when you attain level 2, but only 7% when you attain level 15.

It’s a lot easier to notice patterns like these in the Gold Box games than in live D&D. Partly this is because I’m playing all classes at once: in live sessions, I generally only focus on my own character. Also, having the computer take care of the details of the game mechanics frees up one’s mind to focus on the effects. Mainly, though, the experience is highly compressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a D&D group that met more than once a week, but even if I spent as much of my time on live D&D as I’ve been spending on these computer games, it wouldn’t go as fast. Combat is resolved much faster here, and the whole system seems to be set up to accelerate leveling, whether through quest XP or through gratuitous XP-yielding treasure finds. Those ice giants that I mentioned carry enormous quantities of platinum — far too much to carry, even if I still had a use for more riches at this point, but it does artificially inflate the experience reward for the encounter.

SotSB: After the Mines

I’m almost ready to wrap up Secret of the Silver Blades for the time being. I don’t expect to finish the game this weekend, though. Judging by the number of teleport gates I’ve liberated, I’m still a bit less than half done with the game. That might not be a very good way to judge progress, though, because the teleporter density varies a lot. The game seems to provide a new teleporter whenever it would be inconvenient to redo your progress from the last one, and how often that’s the case depends on the game design. There was only one teleporter for all ten levels of the mines, even though they took me the better part of a week to clear. This is because the mines were basically arranged around a single hub, the mine’s central shaft: a teleporter near that hub could serve all the levels. In a more linear section, like where I am now, providing the same level of teleporter access means putting a separate teleporter at the beginning of every major section.

The sections immediately after the mines go back to the established 16×16 block design, and the constraint seems to have inspired some of the creativity that the mines were lacking. We’ve got riddles and illusions — on more than one occasion, I’ve gone to rescue someone only to fall into an ambush. I’ve accepted into my party a man in a Black Circle uniform. He claims that he donned it as a disguise while he searched for his captured companions. His story seems to check out so far, but trusting anyone or anything around here makes me a little nervous.

For a while now, the main theme in the enemies has been monsters with petrification attacks: cockatrices, basilisks, medusae. This is something that really started back in the mines, but they were just spicing on the normal encounters before, and now they’re the bulk of the monsters, and appear in quantities I used to associate with kobolds. I’ve contemplated equipping everyone permanently with a mirror, but this doesn’t even seem all that necessary: my saving throws are good enough by now to survive most petrification attempts, and I can generally take out the bulk of the monsters beforehand with a couple of well-placed fireballs (still my bread-and-butter spell, despite having higher-level stuff: its range and area of effect are unmatched, and it’s low-level enough that I can memorize a whole bunch of them). And to top it all off, both of my mages can cast Stone to Flesh. Supposedly the shock of being unpetrified can sometimes kill the patient, but I haven’t yet seen this happen. I think the game is starting to phase out the petrifiers in favor of driders and other spellcasters, but they’re still vulnerable to the same general tactics — that is, kill or disable them before they can do anything.

Anyway, I’ll give it one more day before I go on to 1991.

SotSB: Dungeoneering

I’ve finally made it through the mines to what I assume to be the start of the game’s real dungeon. Secret of the Silver Blades is definitely a lot more dungeon-heavy than the previous two games, and I hope I’ve been clear by now that this isn’t a compliment. This is easily the most slow-moving game in the series so far.

In third edition D&D, there is a trainable knowledge skill called “Dungeoneering”, which is used both for knowledge of dungeon-dwelling creatures and for things like identifying important features of mines and caves: unstable areas, unnatural rock formations that may be concealing something, etc. Second edition didn’t have knowledge skills of this sort, or at least the Gold Box games don’t. Dungeoneering knowledge is instead the inherent province of Dwarves. And it happens that, even though I didn’t know how dungeon-heavy this game was, I have a dwarf in my party — a fighter/thief. (Despite the advice of others, I simply wanted a thief in my party, but making a pure thief seemed a waste, and combining it with a fighter seemed like a good idea. And in fact this is a combination recommended in the manual. In fact, the manual contains a couple of complete recommended party rosters, one of which is, strangely enough, identical to what I came up with independently: fighter, paladin, fighter/thief, cleric, and two magic-users, all human except the one dwarf.)

There have been a few occasions where my dwarf has had a visible impact on what happens. Obviously the designers don’t want to make this stuff too critical — some players won’t have a dwarf on their team, especially now that we’re at the point where the level caps for nonhumans really begin to hurt. But he spotted a trap door at one point, and there’s a repeated feature where you’re offered an opportunity to dig for gems, with the gems invariably spotted by the dwarf. I kind of wonder if there are similar special opportunities for the other nonhuman races, but really, this isn’t an environment for elves to do much (apart from exercise their natural ability to find secret doors, of course).

SotSB: Confusion

I’ve been encountering a lot of Umber Hulks lately — there aren’t a lot of different monster types in the mines, so what types there are, I’ve been seeing a lot. Umber Hulks have a gaze attack that produces effects equivalent to the Confusion spell. It seems to be broken.

Confusion is supposed to make characters act at random — there’s a table to roll on for the effects. One of the possible effects is attacking your allies instead of your enemies. This never happens to the PCs. It almost happens, though. At one point, when I directed a confused character to attack the enemy, I received the same confirmation prompt that I normally get when I accidentally try to attack an ally. Clearly, the game considered that character to be on the enemy’s side — but I was still in control of the character’s actions. And control seems to be the nub of it. Perhaps the testers were always leaving their characters on autopilot during combat, in which case they’d attack whoever the computer thinks they should be attacking.

As if to confirm this, I found and freed a captive NPC who joined my party. (This is something that happens fairly frequently in this series. Generally speaking, they stay with you only while you remain in the dungeon where you found them.) Being an NPC, her actions weren’t under my control, and when she became confused, she started hitting the PCs — and hitting them rather too well. I had to cast Hold Person on her to restrain her, and then faced the problem that, as long as she was still considered an enemy by the combat engine, the combat wouldn’t end. I really botched things here. I wanted to take her down and then heal her, but wound up just killing her instead. Dead NPCs, it turns out, are removed from the party, rather than kept around for resurrection like PCs. But — and here the whole situation started feeling really unclean — I got her equipment as loot from the encounter. And it’s really good loot.

You want to talk about moral dilemmas in games? This one was a humdinger. I start to suspect that the key to making a good moral dilemma is to make it unexpected and, if possible, unplanned.

SotSB: Seeking Guidance

Hunting for these staff pieces is getting tedious. There’s not a lot of variety in the mines, or a lot of challenge either. Pretty much the only thing that can stop me now is a series of cheap KO’s from monsters with save-or-die abilities, like basilisks or wyverns. Actually, that that’s not quite right: neither of those monsters technically kills you if you fail your saving throw. The wyvern’s sting misleadingly produces the message “[character] has died”, which caused me to quit without saving when I first encountered it back in Pool of Radiance, but it’s really an effect that my cleric can cure with the Neutralize Poison spell. And while I don’t yet have the Stone to Flesh spell to undo the basilisk’s gaze, the temple back in town does.

It’s inconvenient to run back to town with a partially-petrified party, though, so basilisks are best dealt with before they can get a stare off, either by blasting them with magic or by having everyone temporarily equip mirrors in place of their shields. Only once have I failed to do this — it was a mixed encounter, basilisks and something else, and I failed to scroll the viewport far enough to notice that the basilisks were there. I won the fight, but with 2/3 of the party down. The fact that the survivors were presumably each lugging two statues wherever they went didn’t seem to slow them down, but I still wanted to end the situation as quickly as possible. So rather than go all the way back to town, I decided at first to check out the abandoned temple in the mines, where the dwarf who sent me after the staff pieces in the first place hangs out. I figured that there was an outside chance that a guy who spends his time in a temple would turn out to be a cleric, and that he might possibly be able to cast Stone to Flesh. If he wanted the staff badly enough, he might even cast it for free!

(I should note that this last point was misguided, as the temple in town also cures the party for free. This didn’t happen in the previous two games, but that’s fitting, given their plots. In Pool of Radiance, as I said before, the player characters are no one special, just a bunch of adventurers seeking their fortune, and the temples in Phlan had set up shop to share in that fortune. In Curse of the Azure Bonds, the PCs’ motives were basically selfish. But here in Secret of the Silver Blades, the heroes were summoned specifically to save the city. When you’re in town, randomly-occurring color messages continually remind you that the populace is pulling for you. Helping you along by waiving fees is part of that, unusual though it may be for a CRPG.)

When I made it back to my dwarvish taskmaster, I was dismayed to find that all he did was complain that I had only found four of the staff pieces, and then send me on my way. His failure to cure my party wasn’t even the dismaying part; I pretty much expected that. The dismaying part was that I thought I had found five pieces. I had stopped in the middle of exploring mine level six. As anticipated, I had lost track of where I had found things, and now faced the prospect of re-exploring every level I had already been through. Except it would be worse this time, because on four of those levels the staff piece was already removed, and the only way to establish this would be to search every inch.

Not liking this, I cast about for better ways, and finally did what I should have done long before: I consulted the Well of Wisdom. It did not disappoint. It didn’t tell me the exact coordinates of the remaining pieces, but it said just about everything possible short of that: what level each piece was on, what direction to take from the central shaft to find them. It turns out my missing piece is on level 3.

Advice and guidance figure big in this game, mainly because the maps are too large for the player to reasonably be expected to explore them thoroughly. And that’s not a bad thing: it makes the player replace exhaustive searches with a more deliberate, purposeful style of play. I do think it could stand to be more consistent about it, though. As far as I can tell, there’s no guidance towards finding the entrance to the mines in the first place. It’s located close enough to the Well of Wisdom that you’re expected to just run into it on your own. It certainly worked that way for me. But once that happened, it got me to stop looking for guidance, and that was bad.

SotSB: Pieces

The area around the Well of Wisdom forms the hub of Secret of the Silver Blades. There are sixteen two-way teleport gates there, leading to significant places throughout the game, but they need to be activated from the opposite side before they can be used. It’s a reasonable way to make the player earn progress in the story, but only have to earn each bit of progress once. (I recall Ultima Underworld 2 did something similar with doors that could only be unlocked from one side.) I currently have five of the teleporters activated, which I suppose means I’m somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the way through the game.

My current mission is similarly subdivided: I’m scouring the various levels of the mines for the eight pieces (one piece per mine level) of an important artifact, a staff once owned by the big bad’s little brother. 1Actually, I don’t know which of the brothers is older; I phrase it the way I do because it sounds good. And this reminds me once again of Ultima Underworld 2, which also had a backstory involving two brothers, with no indication of which was older — which, I hear, resulted some consternation, and an emergency post-release story meeting, when the game was translated into Japanese. A character talking at length about his brother in Japanese without saying whether he’s an older or younger brother is about as natural and easy as a character talking about his sibling in English without mentioning the sibling’s gender. The mines are large: the point where you enter has coordinates (50, 50), and the tunnels spread in all directions from there, for an implied 100×100 potential size, although the upper reaches, at least, don’t reach nearly that far. But so far, I haven’t found it necessary to map them. Following the right-hand wall has sufficed to produce the first three staff fragments. This technique is not guaranteed to always work — there could be loops in the tunnels — but I can worry about mapping once I’ve seen it fail. Or once I start actually encountering monsters that pose a threat to me again, and decide I need to know the shortest route back to the exit.

Understand that the staff doesn’t show up in your inventory, or indeed anywhere else in the entire user interface. It’s a notional staff, a staff that exists only at the plot level. This is consistent with the approach taken throughout the series so far, starting with the books you recover from the Phlan library in Pool of Radiance. Curse of the Azure Bonds makes a major point of three artifacts (a helm, an amulet, and something I can’t remember) that you need to defeat the end boss, but you only see them in cutscenes. But that’s all quite easy to keep track of: the CotAB midgame has three villains, and each is linked in some way to one of the three items. Whereas these staff pieces have next to no context: they’re all found in undistinguished crannies in indistinguishable tunnels. If I were to set the game aside for a few months, as I have done with many other CRPGs, I doubt I’d be able to remember which tunnels had already yielded staff and which still need scouring. And the game wouldn’t help me. I’d have to keep notes manually or something.

1 Actually, I don’t know which of the brothers is older; I phrase it the way I do because it sounds good. And this reminds me once again of Ultima Underworld 2, which also had a backstory involving two brothers, with no indication of which was older — which, I hear, resulted some consternation, and an emergency post-release story meeting, when the game was translated into Japanese. A character talking at length about his brother in Japanese without saying whether he’s an older or younger brother is about as natural and easy as a character talking about his sibling in English without mentioning the sibling’s gender.

SotSB: Well of Wisdom

The Well of Wisdom is essentially Secret of the Silver Blades‘ version of Pool of Radiance‘s council clerk, giving you leads on what you should be doing next. Except it doesn’t do it for free. You have to feed it gems in large quantities. There’s thus a natural connection between the Well and the mines (where the gems come from), and part of the story involves the Order of the Black Circle, the evil wizards who control the mines, trying to get control of the Well also.

More importantly, this arrangement gives us something that the previous two games lacked: a money sink. This is something the system really sorely needs, particularly considering how heavy money is. I commented before about how I wasn’t even picking up platinum pieces in the last game, and for a while, I was dropping them without consideration here too, until I remembered that I didn’t have to: the town where you start the game actually has a bank where you can deposit your loot. The same bank will exchange coins for gems. So I assume that the designers saw that people were leaving heaps of treasure on the battlefield and decided that this was a problem worth solving. I’m still accumulating money far faster than I can use it, but at least it’s not reducing my combat movement rate.

One thing bothers me about that well: it’s a magical body of water with a mind and a will, and therefore possibly an agenda. I mean, we all learned not to trust magical bodies of water back in Pool of Radiance, right? Furthermore, if the Well turned out to be evil, it would just be continuing a theme of betrayal that seems to be a big part of this game generally. The Black Circle, for example, pretended to be benevolent for quite some time, aiding the hapless miners in order to hasten their digging a tunnel to let the monsters out. You’d think that the name “Black Circle” would have been a tip-off that they were evil, but apparently the miners were desperate or greedy enough to let it slide.

SotSB: Embedding

Another day of little play. Lacking much new to write about, I’ll correct something I said earlier. I said that the larger-than-16×16 regions were unimportant, and that they didn’t have events attached to fixed locations like the important areas do. While I maintain that this is true in Curse of the Azure Bonds, it’s not in Secret of the Silver Blades. SotSB, like the two games that preceded it, uses a system of numbered text passages in the manual that you’re expected to look up when instructed by the game. Some of them aren’t actually text passages, but rather, maps, or fragments of maps. Some of these guide you to specific places in the larger areas.

Actually, the previous two games did this on occasion too, but I didn’t find it useful there, because I tended to explore everything exhaustively anyway. It’s not hard to do when the world is in such small chunks. But here? I recall reading somewhere that the Gold Box games were known for their vast dungeons, but that seemed like a lie until this game. The game’s central hub — the Well of Wisdom 1UPDATE: Looking back, I find the game calls it the “Well of Knowledge”. But I have it as “Wisdom” in this and subsequent posts, and I don’t intent to bother changing it., which provides teleport gates to other important areas you’ve already visited — is a standard 16×16 sector that’s actually embedded in a much larger labyrinth, which seems to take the place of wilderness in this game. I don’t think it’s the only such embedded sector, either, because the notion of embedding is worked into the story: in the game’s intro sequence, you see a castle engulfed by a glacier, like a fly in amber. This, I’m told, is the lair of the end boss. Although not yet explicitly stated, it seems likely that the monsters that have been flooding from the mines ultimately come from tunnels dug from that castle.

1 UPDATE: Looking back, I find the game calls it the “Well of Knowledge”. But I have it as “Wisdom” in this and subsequent posts, and I don’t intent to bother changing it.

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