Pool of Radiance: Documentation

One peculiar thing about Pool of Radiance: A lot of the game’s text isn’t in the game. Every once in a while, it directs you to read a passage from the manual: there’s a section of the manual for journal entries you can find, and a section for proclamations posted outside the town hall, and even a section of tavern rumors, all tagged with identifiers referenced in the game content. The player is more or less on the honor system to not read ahead (although there are apparently red herrings sprinkled in amongst the legitimate content to mislead the cheaters). And that’s fine by me; these days, with walkthroughs for nearly everything readily available online, we’re always on the honor system.

While it isn’t common practice today to leave in-game text out of the game, Pool of Radiance is not unique in this regard. For example, Wasteland, PoR‘s contemporary in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, did something similar, with important plot events described in a big list of numbered paragraphs. The very first CRPG I ever played, Temple of Apshai, had printed descriptions of each room, in imitation of the style of D&D modules. Presumably the same inspiration applies in part here, but Apshai at least had the additional excuse of being really, really old. I’ve described Wizardry and Ultima as the foundations of the CRPG genre, but Apshai predates them both; it just wasn’t as influential (and for good reasons). It was originally written for the TRS-80, with all its limitations, and shipped on a cassette tape rather than floppy disks: moving as much data as possible out of the executable and into the manual was a practical matter. (It even went to the extreme of putting treasure on the honor system. When you returned from the dungeon, you were expected to look up how much all your collected items were worth and type in the sum.) For PoR and Wasteland, which routinely contain text passages without this look-it-up-in-the-manual nonsense, the motivation probably had more to do with casual piracy. Copying disks was easy and essentialy costless — floppy disks are reusable. But not so the manual — at least not in the 1980s, when scanners were scarce.

Mind you, photocopiers were plentiful. But the cost of photocopying the text pages (in both money and time) increases with the number of pages copied. This would give the designers a motivation to make the game text items as long as possible, and sure enough, they occupy the bulk of the PoR manual. Notably, they take up the space that old fantasy RPGs normally devote to spell lists.

Bulky spell lists are another thing that the genre got from D&D, so it’s a little ironic that they’re crammed onto a single page here in the first official D&D adaptation — both magic-user and cleric spells together, taking up less total space than the damage stats for all the polearms. All that’s listed is the spell names, not what they do. I guess you’re expected to already be familiar with the effects from playing D&D, but D&D has changed a lot in the last twenty years, so I’m left guessing about some of them. “Friends”? There was a spell called “Friends” in 1e? (It’s a charisma buff, it turns out.) “Spiritual Hammer” seems to create a hammer in the caster’s inventory, but I have no idea what its advantages are over a normal weapon. “Read Magic” seems straightforward, but casting it has not enabled me to tell what spells are on the scrolls I’ve found — perhaps I’m just doing the wrong thing in the UI?

[Added 6 February 2010] OK, it turns out that The Forgotten Realms Archives (the anthology package I’m playing from) contains more documentation than I knew about. The Gold Box games apparently had three pieces of printed documentation: the Reference Card, the Journal, and the Manual. This anthology comes with a thick printed book containing the Reference Cards and the Journals. The Manuals are on the CD, in PCX format, with a DOS-based viewer — I think I prefer the HTML transcription that Jason Dyer links to in the comments below. They include a great deal of gameplay information that I had been missing — not just the spell descriptions, but things like race/class limitations and what exactly all the menu options are supposed to do. I wish I had known about this while I was creating my characters.

Final Fantasy V: Penultimate Endeavors

I think I understand by now how the rest of the game is going to go. An area is available to me now that I have every reason to believe to be the endgame area — at least, it’s a place that you can’t return from, offering little opportunity to save and no opportunity to buy equipment, all of which is typical of a final dungeon in a Final Fantasy. I’ve visited this area twice. The first time, I was sucked in accidentally when I flew over it in my airship, and didn’t survive long. The second time was curiosity, coupled with lack of progress elsewhere. It lasted longer, but still ended with a TPK courtesy of a miniboss I wasn’t prepared for.

The one really atypical thing about the endgame is how early it becomes available. I’ve still got some major quests to do, including at least two dungeons. But the plot is no longer the driving force. Rather, the point of the remaining quests is simply to gear up for the final battle. The main quest right now is to unlock the game’s ultimate weapons, and other quests involve obtaining the ultimate spells and one final Job. It’s not unusual in the Final Fantasy series to spend some time hunting down upgrades before plunging into the finale, but that stage of the game usually doesn’t have this much content. It’s not clear yet how optional it all is, but given how tough the end boss in FF4 was, I’m not going to make another sally at the endgame until I’ve completed everything else. And since I’ll be getting on a plane to the east coast tomorrow, I probably won’t get a chance before the new year.

There’s something going on here that’s almost unique to RPGs. Call it “soft walls” — places where you don’t go before you’re ready, even though the game doesn’t prevent you. My earliest memorable experience with such a thing was in the 1988 post-apocalypictic RPG Wasteland, which put the Archivist Citadel, one of the highest-level areas, smack in the middle of the map with its doors wide open from the beginning of the game. Every once in a while I would go in there to see if I could handle it yet, only to limp home after fleeing one encounter. The FF5 endgame doesn’t work quite like that: most of the encounters there are things I’m quite capable of handling, but I don’t want to go there simply because I can’t come back.