Wizardry I: The Reluctant Victor

I’ve got a story for you. It starts with our hero in a state of inaction: the next step forward is to take on Werdna, the wizard at the end of dungeon level 10, but I don’t have the courage. “Am I ready? Am I sure I’m ready? I remember seeing my parties get torn apart by this guy and his vampire minions in my first pass at the game. Maybe I should do another few grinding passes, just until I have a ninja in the party, or at least more than one character who can cast TILTOWAIT (the most powerful direct-damage spell). Just to be sure.” And so I dilly-dallied for days.

So I’m at the point where I can do a complete circuit of level 9, hitting all the rooms, and still have enough health and magic left to go several rooms into level 10. Level 10 is a series of seven twisty but branchless corridors leading to seven guarded rooms, the seventh being Werdna’s lair, which is clearly marked with a message outside so you don’t stumble into it by accident. Each room comes with an opportunity to teleport back home, even if you’re out of teleport spells, so it’s not a bad place to hunt for rare items.

Now, the rare items I’m hunting for always come in chests, and nearly all chests have traps; this is why it’s important to have a thief in the party. But even high-level thieves have a chance to fumble and trigger the trap they’re trying to disarm. One of the most concerning traps is the Teleporter, which sends the party to a random location on the same level — mercifully, it never teleports you into solid rock, but if you’re on a level you haven’t fully mapped out, you can easily wind up teleporting to a place you have no idea how to get back from. Reader, I hit a telporter on level 10.

A smarter, or more paranoid, player than me would have cast a teleport spell straight back to the surface at this point. But I figured it wasn’t so bad, right? You can’t really get lost on level 10. I was in a room, and I didn’t know which room of the chain it was, but it was bound to have the exit route that all the rooms have. I took a step forward. Suddenly I was in an encounter with Werdna. The trap had sent me straight into the last room, skipping over the warning message. I hadn’t even healed up from the encounter that gave me the chest with the teleporter.

Fortunately, all my worries meant that I had put off the encounter long enough to make it downright trivial. My priest and bishop successfully silenced Werdna before he got a single spell off, then dispelled vampires while my mage spammed TILTOWAIT. I barely suffered a scratch. And now I guess I’m moving on to Knight of Diamonds.

Wizardry I: What Changes and What Doesn’t

Now, there are many versions of Wizardry I, and the one I’m playing today is not the same one I played in my youth. They’re both PC versions, but the standalone box I had back then had a very different UI from the one in the Ultimate Wizardry Archives CD-ROM anthology, the former displaying the first-person view of the dungeon in one corner and filling the rest of the screen with stats and messages, the latter keeping the dungeon view full-screen and overlaying temporary windows on top of it. I understand the full-screen approach to have been originally created for Wizardry III. And neither is completely identical to the Apple II version that preceded it, or the console versions that followed it. Some versions change the content, too. There are entire maps that are completely different on Nintendo. I don’t know why. Names of items vary wildly by platform, as if they had been translated by different localization teams, except that they were originally written in English. (Maybe they got translated into Japanese and back? It’s not as wild a supposition as it sounds; somehow, the series has long been most popular in Japan.)

Still, the Ultimate Wizardry Archive port is completely faithful the original maps, even when they seem like they must be wrong. There are portions of the maze that are inaccessible without teleporting, including part of the tunnels forming Andrew Greenberg’s initials on level 9, as if they left out a door and didn’t notice. There’s a sort of quest chain on levels 1 and 2 where you find keys to access other keys, culminating in a gold key that has no use. Apparently in the Nintendo port, the gold key gives you access to the elevator from level 1 to 4, just as the blue ribbon lets you ride from 4 to 9. Maybe that was the intention all along. As a child, I always thought of Wizardry as a class act, with its sleek and elegant black boxes and its substance-over-style design. It tarnishes this impression somewhat to notice not just such slapdash QA, but that the apparent mistakes went without correction in a port made 17 years later.

The version I’m playing now makes one change that I find really significant: in porting to the Wizardry III engine, it inherited Wizardry III‘s alignment mechanics. In the original version, you chose each character to be Good, Evil, or Neutral on creation, and that was pretty much it for them — I’ve seen claims that picking fights with friendly monsters provided a miniscule chance of turning Good characters Evil, but it never happened to me. A character’s alignment limits both what classes they can be and who they can adventure with, so this effectively meant you couldn’t have a party containing both a Lord (Good only) and a Ninja (Evil only). 1Except by giving a Thief’s Dagger to a Neutral Thief, anyway. But Wizardry III made it so easy to switch alignments through your treatment of friendly monsters that the distinction became almost meaningless: anyone can adventure with anyone else, given enough time to arrange it. But at the same time, shifting alignment is randomized enough that it also became easy to split your party’s alignment, rendering them temporarily incapable of getting together again if they’re split up, either voluntarily, by quitting the game, or involuntarily, by getting someone killed and resurrecting them in town. This creates a pressure to keep acting your alignment all the time to avoid splitting the party. If you’re playing a Good party, you have reason to leave all friendly monsters alone, which is simple enough, but makes the Murphy-grinding slower; if Evil, you have reason to attack all friendlies, even the ones that are liable to cause problems. Wizardry I as originally released lacked such considerations.

References
1 Except by giving a Thief’s Dagger to a Neutral Thief, anyway.

Wizardry I: High-Level Tactics

I knew Wizardry I was grindy, but I had forgotten just how grindy. I’ve said before that the ideal balance in a CRPG is that if you just explore each area thoroughly, the encounters you have along the way give you enough experience (and/or loot) to keep going. The levels here fall miles short of that ideal. You run out of dungeon to explore long before you’re ready to face Werdna. I’ve been orbiting level 9 for a while now, waiting for rare equipment drops like it’s a gacha game. Those goodies are must-haves for the final encounter.

If it weren’t for that, I’m pretty sure that the Murphy’s Ghost back on dungeon level 1 is still a more efficient way to get XP, partly because there’s essentially no delay between encounters, but largely because of the complete lack of risk. The monsters in the lower levels of the dungeon have ways to undo hours of progress instantly: ninjas with decapitation attacks, level-draining undead. Your main counter to these things is to kill them before they can do anything, so high-level battles frequently come down to who goes first. And that’s affected by experience level. So it helps to grind Murphy for a while before you go loot hunting, but putting more time into your characters also raises the stakes.

I haven’t done this yet in the current go-round, but: Part of making an ultra-powerful party is changing everyone’s class at least once. This is an option you don’t see in a lot of CRPGs, even ones modeled on Wizardry. Changing class puts you back at level 1 and resets your stats to their racial defaults and reduces your spell slots to just enough to cast every spell you know once, but leaves your hit points alone. Mages have very low hit points for their level, making them a point of vulnerability for your party, but if you take a fighter with over 100 hit points and convert them into a mage, the result is a mage that can actually take some damage. Or, contrariwise, a high-level mage turned into a fighter becomes a front-row combatant that can do a few powerful spells in an emergency. There are two classes, the Lord and the Ninja, that can only be made by converting a character into their class.

Trying to make a Ninja the by-the-book way is an exercise in frustration, though. It requires a minimum of 17 in every stat, and your stats go up and down at random whenever you gain a level. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that there’s an easier way: with an item called a Thief’s Dagger, you can turn a thief directly into a ninja of the same level, circumventing the usual class-change process. That’s largely why I’m still cycling through dungeon level 9. I’m waiting for a Thief’s Dagger to show up.

Changing class the normal way has one other effect: it ages the character, presumably from the time spent training. Age is one of the basic character stats, albeit one that I don’t pay much attention to most of the time, and it has the peculiar property that different characters can age at different rates: send someone to rest off his injuries at the inn for a few weeks, and he’ll come back weeks older, while everyone else stays the same. (In practice, this never happens, because it’s both cheaper and more efficient to go into the dungeon where you can use healing magic.) Apparently characters will start spontaneously retiring once they hit their fifties, but this isn’t a serious limitation — characters age very slowly as long as you don’t waste time at that inn, and new characters can start as young as 14, which is a little horrible when you think about it. I mean, okay, that’s a pretty common age for a character JRPG, but JRPG characters basically never die. They just have their progress reset a little. Whereas first-level Wizardry characters are basically fed into a meat grinder by the mad overlord in large quantities while they’re still children.

Wizardry I: The Control Center

The player’s mission in Wizardry I is to slay the wizard Werdna and obtain the amulet he stole from the mad overlord Trebor1The names Werdna and Trebor are the reversed first names of Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, the game’s authors. Greenberg and Woodhead’s initials also form the basis of the layout of dungeon levels 8 and 9., but the game only announces this after a major battle on dungeon level 4 (out of 10). Before that point, you’re just dungeon-delving for its own sake. It’s a little like how Final Fantasy 1 only starts its main plot after the first dungeon, and in both cases it’s probably based on how tabletop D&D tends to go: only after the first few sessions does anyone think of turning it into a campaign.

But here in Wizardry, the mission start comes unusually far into the thing. In fact, in a sense, it’s right at the end. Here’s the thing: Dungeon levels 5 through 8 are useless for the actual mission, except to the extent that you can use them to grind levels and loot. There are no stairs down from level 8. The only way to reach the last two levels and Werdna (other than by teleportation magic) is via the elevator on level 4, which you can only access if you have the blue ribbon you’re awarded at the same time you’re told of the mission. So there’s no obstacle to going straight down from the mission assignment to the endgame, if you’re arrogant enough to think you’re up to it.

I’ve always found the whole situation a little confusing. The upper parts of the dungeon, at least, are the titular “proving ground” that Trebor uses to find heroes worth sending after Werdna. But to prove yourself worthy, you have to ignore a number of signs telling you that certain areas are off-limits and break into a section marked “Testing Grounds control center” and “Authorized personnel only”, where alarms go off, summoning monsters. A mention of “the remains of crystal balls and other magical artifacts all now broken” makes the place seem abandoned and overrun, but it’s still functional enough to dispense elevator keys on Trebor’s behalf. Just what’s going on here? We’re told that that Werdna is hiding in the depths of the maze, but the maze is apparently right underneath Trebor’s castle and features an elevator leading straight to Werdna’s lair. We’re probably supposed to chalk a lot of this up to the mad overlord’s madness.

One other thing about the battle of the control center: It yields significant loot, including a Ring of Death, a cursed item that drains the hit points of its wearer at an alarming rate. That might not sound good, but you have to bear in mind that it also costs a fortune to uncurse it — so much that you should probably give up on the character who put it on and roll up a new one. OK, that also doesn’t sound good. The good part is that the cost to remove a cursed object is proportional to what you can sell it for if you identify it without triggering the curse. There’s a certain risk in identifying cursed objects — the character doing the identifying can accidentally become cursed while identifying it — but successfully identifying and selling a Ring of Death is basically the point in the game where you stop worrying about money and start lamenting that there’s so little to spend it on.

References
1 The names Werdna and Trebor are the reversed first names of Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, the game’s authors. Greenberg and Woodhead’s initials also form the basis of the layout of dungeon levels 8 and 9.

Wizardry I: Architectural Surrealism

This time around, I’m really noticing just how weird the entire dungeon is, viewed as anything other than an abstraction. This is a place that just doesn’t make sense. And I’m not even just talking about the physically unrealistic aspects, like wraparound. I mean that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would build it this way, even bearing in mind that it’s a labyrinth created by a wizard.

I think of my recent experiences with Litil Divil. That was a completely artificial labyrinth, with tunnels meandering this way and that for no reason other than to be circuitous, punctuated with rooms containing challenges of various sorts. There’s a senselessness to that, but it’s a top-down senselessness, a senselessness of purpose. The details of the maze and its rooms make perfect sense as an execution of a strange and pointless intention. The dungeon in Wizardry I has rooms too, and hallways leading to rooms, and corridors with rows of doors leading to rooms on either side. What’s in these rooms? In most cases, absolutely nothing. They’re not rooms that serve a purpose. It’s as if the whole thing was built by an alien intelligence that knows that human buildings have rooms in them, but doesn’t understand why.

Alternately, I guess you could decide that the minimalism of the graphics is just hiding implied details. But that just leaves you in the position of trying to imagine details that make sense of rings of tiny rooms or cycles of one-way doors. Level 5 is particularly chaotic. I recall the short-lived Leslie Nielsen comedy series Police Squad! had a recurring gag involving a door that one character goes through while another just goes around the wall of the set it’s in. There’s a door like that near the beginning of level 5, and even worse, it’s a one-way door.

I think that when I played this game for the first time, I wasn’t really taking it seriously as a place. It was as fake as a carnival funhouse, and similarly intended solely for entertainment. You get that in a lot of older games, like how the endgame in Colossal Cave takes you through the warehouse that stocks the caves.

Restarting Wizardry

My craving for making maps on a grid unsatisfied, I turn back to the game that taught it to me in the first place. I left off Wizardry III in the middle more than a decade ago on this blog; I think it’s time I got back to it. But first, it’s been so long now since I played the first two Wizardries that I feel like I should start over from the very beginning. So last night I created a new party of adventurers to explore the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Just like when I started over Wizardry III, I still have some old characters around — I’m not using the same machine as 12 years ago, but I still have the files — but I intend to only use them for emergencies like dragging characters’ carcasses out of the dungeon for attempted resurrection after a TPK. (Recall that resurrection is not guaranteed to work in this game.)

My writeup of Wizardry III describes generating lots of level 1 characters and getting most of them killed immediately, a cycle that repeats until I finally, painstakingly get someone to survive to level 2, which provides the leverage I needed to get more characters over that hump. Strikingly, that didn’t happen at all in my replay of Wizardry I. I just took some simple precautions, like pooling my party’s gold to buy the front-line fighters decent armor, and heading for the exit before I ran out of healing spells, and that was sufficient to get my entire party up to level 2 without any deaths at all. By the end of the evening, they were level 10-ish with only one replacement. I remember the game being a lot harder than this. Of course, when I first played it, I had no idea what I was doing, and this time around, I’m very familiar with both CRPGS in general and Wizardry in particular. The opening hallways and chambers of level 1 are engraved in my memory, and instantly recognizable — moreso than the rest of the dungeon, because this is the part you see at the start of every delve.

But to be honest, the main reason I’ve been able to advance so quickly is the Murphy’s Ghost. Hidden away in a secret area of level 1 where you won’t find it easily, it may have been initially intended as a kind of trap. You enter a room and get some text describing an altar, and a prompt asking if you want to search it. Say yes, and a Murphy’s Ghost appears — or sometimes two; I think the name must not mean “the ghost of Murphy” but rather, something like “a species of ghost identified by Murphy”, like “Thomson’s Gazelle” or “Pallas’s Cat”. At any rate, the Murphy’s Ghost is a great deal tougher than other monsters you encounter on level 1, but once you’re advanced enough to beat it, it offers an unparalleled reward-to-risk ratio. And since you can just enter the altar room and summon it again as many times as you like, it’s the ideal grinding spot. And grind I did.

All this ease inevitably led to overconfidence and a TPK on level 4 when I prematurely took on the game’s first real boss encounter. I’ve more or less recovered from that, but my party has been almost entirely Ship-of-Theseused, with only one of the initial roster remaining. The Murphy’s Ghost helps a lot with that, too: it doesn’t have any ranged attacks, so if you’re training up a fragile new level-1 character, you can just park them in the back row and let them earn XP by watching the big guys slaughter ghosts for a while.