Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Moria (1975)

With Orthanc done and dusted, it's time for me to move on to yet another game from 1975, and yet another game from the PLATO system: Moria.  Moria was created at the University of Illinois by Kevet Duncombe and Jim Batton, both of whom claim that they had never heard of Dungeons & Dragons or read Tolkien at the time of the game's creation.  The game was supposedly developed after they heard stories about the creation of The Game of Dungeons.  I suppose I have to take their word for it, but I do find it a stretch that someone who has never read Tolkien would just pick the name Moria out of thin air.  That they never played Dungeons & Dragons is more believable, because it doesn't play much like D&D at all.


 The game begins with a pretty nifty title screen.  Astute readers will notice that it's in colour, rather than the good old orange and black of the other PLATO games.  My PLATO emulator has a colour option, and for this game I decided to try it out.  I'm glad I did, because it makes the various elements of the game screen stand out from each other.  I don't know if it's authentic, but it's certainly easier on the eyes (if a little garish).

The previous three games I've played (The Dungeon, Orthanc and The Game of Dungeons) were all top-down and icon-based, but Moria  uses a first-person perspective.  The land of Moria is depicted as a vast wire-frame maze, viewed through a teeny-tiny window.  Seriously, look at the thing.  It's so small.


The game, like most others of its type, involves wandering the maze, fighting monsters and gathering treasure.  I'm not certain that it has an end-point, but there are a number of goals to strive for.  The simplest is to get your name in the Hall of Fame, which is simply done by scoring a lot of points for killing monsters.  My character, shown above, has 125 points, and will need over 19,133 to get in the Hall of Fame.  If I want to get to the top, I'll need 8,590,248, which doesn't seem a likely scenario.  The second goal is to become master of a guild, which is done by raising your stats and donating shedloads of gold; there are four guilds that you can join, and I'll discuss them further below.  The last goal, and probably the most difficult, is to find the Reaper's Ring.  When the game first started the ring was apparently found on the first level of one of the four "terrains" (dungeons, in other words).  Every time the ring is found it drops down a level.  It was last found on level 38, which means that I have a hefty task ahead of me.

Character creation is very simple.  Every character has four stats: Cunning, Piety, Valor and Wizardry.  All four range between 1 and 100, but the highest a stat can be when you start is 10. Cunning aids with tricking monsters and opening chests.  Piety comes into play when you pray for aid.  Valor helps you in combat, and determines what weapons you can use.  Wizardry is used for casting spells.  They aren't randomly determined at character creation.  Instead you choose which stat will be your highest (with a value of 10), which also determines your medium stats (7) and your lowest stat (5).  For my current character I chose a high score in Valor, which meant that I started with medium Cunning and Piety, and low Wizardry.  It's the closest you get in the game to choosing a class, at least during character creation.  Joining a guild gives you further, more specialised abilities, but more on that later.  Your stats increase as you use them, but not very quickly.  The character shown above is the result of a few hours of play, and he's only increased a few points in each score.

In addition to the four stats, you have Vitality, which starts at 100.  When your Vitality drops to 0 you're dead, and it gets knocked down by the usual things: monsters and traps, mostly.  Another thing that lowers your Vitality is starvation, as well as thirst, because this is a game where you have to make sure you have food and water.  Without them you slowly die.  The final thing that drains your Vitality, and the one that has affected me the most, is spellcasting.  There's no limit to the number of spells you can cast, but each casting lowers your Vitality, so it's not wise to go around blasting spells everywhere.

The game takes place in the land of Moria, which is explicitly said to be an underground maze of rooms and corridors.  This makes a certain sense, because the game is entirely composed of wireframe walls; drawing a tree was well beyond its capabilities.  The game is structured as follows:


You begin the game in the city, which is a safe haven from monsters.  It's also friggin' huge.  All of the maps are divided into 6x6 blocks, and the city is eight blocks by seven blocks.  That makes it 48x42 squares.  The size of it wouldn't be a major problem, except that there's nothing to find.  Sure there are weapon shops, and magic shops where you can sell stuff, and food shops, and water houses.  But no matter how many weapon stores you find, they're all the same.  The map is massive.  I lost two characters to starvation just mapping the damn thing.


The size of the city is absurd given what's in it, and the only purpose it serves is to make it more difficult to find the four guilds.

I suppose I should talk about the guilds now.  They are the Thieves Guild, the Brotherhood, the Union of Knights and the Circle of Wizards.  Each corresponds to one of your stats, and you can only join the guild when that stat reaches 20.  I haven't gotten that far yet, so I don't have any first hand knowledge of what they provide.  According to the documentation each guild confers a special ability: members of the Brotherhood can heal; members of the Circle of Wizards can teleport back to the city; members of the Union of Knights take less damage and have a chance to behead monsters with a single blow; and members of the Thieves Guild have a better chance of finding magic items.  In addition to this your character can have a guild locker, and if you die and create another character instantly, the contents of that locker will be passed to him as an heir.  Your character starts at the age of 13, which makes the idea of having an heir a dubious one, but you know, medieval times.

I'm not sure what the Magic Shops are good for.  You can't buy anything there, and although you can sell items, you can also do so at the Weaponry Shop.  Perhaps you get better prices, but I haven't tested that out yet.  The Supply Store is where you buy food, at the rate of 100 gold pieces for a month's worth.  Water can be bought at the Water House, at the rate of 20 gold a month.

The most interesting shop, though, is the Weaponry Shop.  The range of items available here is staggering.  They're split into five categories: one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, armor for the body, armor for the arms, and armor for the head.  Each item has an Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, and you can easily find these out by asking the shopkeeper.  That's not all you can ask the shopkeeper, either.  You can tell him what category you're looking for, and how much you want to spend, and he'll recommend something.  You can also haggle.  No matter what the starting price of the item, you can usually talk him down to about 2/3 of that total.

That's it for this week.  I haven't progressed very far into the game as yet; I've mapped the city and the wilderness, and I'm just starting on the "Forest" (actually made of green tunnels and rooms).  I'll be back next time to talk about the wilderness, and combat.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Orthanc: Victory!

After a mere eight months, I've completed Orthanc.  I did take a break for a few months in the middle, so it's not as bad as it looks, but I'll need to pick up the pace if I'm going to make any progress on this blog.  I've only got myself to blame, really, for my desire to explore every little bit of a game.  If I hadn't set out to map the whole dungeon I would have been done on the first night.  I also would have experienced much less of the game, and you would have missed out on my amazing maps.  Like these!

Level 8

Level 9

Level 10

I was progressing slowly through level 8, but the turning point came (as I had suspected it would) when I found an Invisibility Ring.  Wearing the ring allowed me to completely avoid all set encounters, and so I was able to map the lower levels of the dungeon with little fear of attack.  I was still under threat from wandering monsters, but I never encountered any on the lower levels while wearing the ring.  In a way, it felt like cheating, but after all the time I spent with this game I was glad to be done.

And despite all the time I spent playing it, I didn't quite experience everything that Orthanc supposedly had to offer.  I never found any of the magic books, or a +3 weapon.  More importantly then any of these, I never encountered any other players in the dungeon.  The game allows different players to run across each other while exploring, and no doubt it was a common occurrence when the game was at its peak of popularity, but in the whole time I was playing I never saw another human being logged in.

The conclusion was a disappointment, as well.  All I had to do was go into the Hall of Fame and retire my character.  There was no victory screen, and no fanfare of any kind.  All that happened was my character's name appearing in the list, as shown below.  Anticlimax!

That's me!  Perrin!

My character was only sixth level when I completed the game, and that's a side-effect of using the Invisibility Ring: I didn't fight any monsters, and so I didn't gain any treasure or experience.  That's fine, though.  I'm in the Hall of Fame, I mapped the whole damned dungeon, and now it's time to give my official likes and dislikes.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE

Emptiness:  The dungeons levels, at 24x20 squares, are big.  This wouldn't normally be a problem for me, especially in a grid-based game, but there's nothing in them.  Explore as much as you want, all you'll find is monsters, pits, chutes and stairs.  All the games I've played so far in this blog are devoid of interesting locations, but The Dungeon was only one level, and The Game of Dungeons had such a frenetic pace that it didn't bother me.  Orthanc is just too big, and too empty.

Quest?  What Quest?: I suppose that Orthanc does have a goal, in that you have to prove yourself valorous enough to reside with the king in luxury.  It feels a bit nebulous, though.  I would much prefer my goal to be something in the game itself, rather than an intangible goal that's gained after the game is done.  Give me something to find in that big-ass dungeon, dammit!

Randomness: Try as you might, if you spend enough time in the dungeon you're going to fall afoul of some bit of fatal bad luck, probably in the form of a monster that surprises you and kills you before you can react.  It's realistic, I suppose, but it doesn't make the game more fun.  I don't mind when it happens to a low-level character, but once I have a well-developed character I feel like I should be able to survive with good tactics.  Most of the time in Orthanc this is the case, but there are still those times when the numbers go against you.

WHAT I LIKED

Authenticity: 1975 is full of games trying to be like Dungeons & Dragons, and so far this is the one that captures it the best.  It's not just the spells, and the monsters, but the power scale.  D&D characters hit their peak at about 9th level, and that was about the point in Orthanc where grinding for the experience needed to level up became more effort than it was worth.  As a result the game felt a lot more grounded, especially after the gonzo power scale of The Game of Dungeons.

Spells and Tactics: The combat in this game was about as complex as that in The Game of Dungeons, except that this game has more spells and more types of monsters.  It's reached the point where figuring out the right spells to use in the right situation feels satisfying, and it often captures the thrilling moment where casting the right spell can be the difference between life and death.  It's slightly disappointing that all of these PLATO games use spells as the only meaningful battle tactic, but in that way they're emulating D&D; it's hard to simulate the effect of clever tactical play, but it's a lot easier to code in the effects of various spells.

Tension: I've included this category in all three games so far, and there's a reason: perma-death!  I've said it before, but in the right kind of game perma-death is absolutely a positive thing, and little in gaming beats the thrill of reaching safety with no spells and a single hit point.  A simple thing like sliding down a chute to a lower level can be a harrowing experience.

That's Moria done and dusted, then.  I enjoyed it in a mild sort of why, but on the whole it was too large and too empty.  I'm going to leave you with this image of the game's dark elf, which amuses me for some reason.  Perhaps I'm just over the usual dark, angsty portrayal you see with them.

Ain't he adorable?
ADDENDUM - FINAL RATING:

Story & Setting: Yet again it's another vast dungeon with nothing in it, and a non-existent plot.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: I have to give this game credit for the sheer number of monsters on display here.  Their interaction with the spell system works well, and the differing ranges of hit points and damage outputs is just enough to add some variety.  Rating: 3.

Aesthetics: There's no sound, but as with the other PLATO CRPGs the graphics are pleasing and functional.  It's that orange and black, I love it.  Rating: 2.

Mechanics: This is where the game shinesThe spell system is good, there are a ton of magic items to provide for differing play-styles, and the variety of monsters allows for differing combat tactics.  None of these elements are superb, but they're all good, and that combines for a really solid gameplay experience.  The only negative here is that you can be too easily killed by random elements.  Rating: 5.

Challenge: This is a challenging game, but it's balanced rather well.  As mentioned above, its major flaw is that random elements can be instantly fatal.  That said, most of my issues came from my desire to explore the entire dungeon.  Actually finishing the game and getting onto the leaderboard wasn't too difficult.  In a way, you can set your own difficulty by how deep you delve, and that's cool.  Rating: 4.

Innovation: Any game that comes this early in a genre is going to score high, but most of the elements of Orthanc come from pedit5.  In many ways it's an expansion of that game, so I have to knock it down a point.  Rating: 5.


Fun: I enjoyed this game a fair bit at the beginning, but it gradually wore me down.  That's perhaps my own fault for playing it too long, but I still have to knock it down a point.  Rating: 3.

I can't see a time when I'll fire this game up again, so I'm not going to give it the bonus point.   The scores above total 23, and doubling that gives me a rating of 46.

Final Rating: 46 out of 100.

NEXT:
A while ago I said that I had tried to play Moria and found that I couldn't get it running.  I did some further digging around in the PLATO help files, and discovered that I was using the wrong lesson name to load the game.  Armed with my newfound knowledge, I'm cracking on with this game, and progressing nicely, and that's what I'll be writing about next week.