Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Oubliette: Blessedly Difficult

I've been playing Oubliette here and there, between Moria and various and sundry console games, and I have good news to report: it's too damned hard, so I won't be getting bogged down in it for any great length of time. Difficult games don't normally bother me, and I think that the solid year I spent trying to finish The Game of Dungeons v8 is a testament to that. I have to make a rule for games that are primarily intended for multiplayer, though. For those games, if the difficulty is too steep, I'll play them for a bit and move on.  My list is long enough, and I need to draw a line somewhere.

(As a general preference, I prefer single-player games anyway.  That's not to say I don't like multiplayer; some of the most fun I've ever had gaming has been with friends.  I'm not a big fan of on-line multiplayer, though.  If I'm playing with other people, I want them in the room, if only so that I may witness the breaking of their spirits in person.  On-line multiplayer doesn't do a lot for me, for which I'm grateful; MMORPGs are a rabbit-hole that I'm glad to have avoided.)

There's no doubt in my mind that Oubliette is balanced for multiplayer, and is nigh-impossible to survive for any significant length of time with just one character. I suppose that I could get another cyber1 sign-on and test it out, but multiplayer games ain't what I'm here for. My current plan is to map level 1 of the dungeon, testing the various classes as I do so, and after that to move on.  The level is large enough that exploring it fully should give me a decent chance to try out the game's many options.

I see this a lot.

I've lost track of how many characters I've sent to their deaths in this game. Of the classes that I've tried, Hirebrands and Clerics seem to last the longest. I haven't tested all of the classes yet, because the list you get to pick from is dependent on race, gender and statistics, and it's hard to know exactly what's needed for the more exotic types. Hirebrands, Thieves, Clerics and Mages aren't difficult to qualify for, and pretty much anybody can be a Peasant (though I'm not sure why you would want to be).  Your class determines which weapons and armour you can use, and what spells you have available; I'm sure there are other differences that aren't so obvious, but I'm yet to figure those out (and I doubt that I will in the time I'll be playing the game).

As far as statistics go, a high Constitution is a must (for hit points), and a high Dexterity also seems to be important, as it determines how easy it is for monsters to surprise you, as well as how often you are able to act in battle. It's not uncommon for beginning characters to be surprised and killed without ever getting a chance to react, so obviously a high Dex is crucial.

I've developed a routine for new characters. My first destination is Corwin's General Store, where I supply them with whatever arms and armour I can.  Most new character start with something in the vicinity of 60 gold pieces, which is enough to buy a weapon and maybe some armour. The choice of weapons is limited (daggers, maces, short swords, axes, hammers,clubs, and the legendary pointed stick) and there are three types of armour: leather, chain and plate.  In addition you can buy shields and helmets, as well as an array of random gear ranging from cloaks to boot to the intriguing Golden Diaper +3. Normally I can afford one weapon (usually the mace or short sword depending on my class) and maybe a shield. Treasure is plentiful in the dungeon, and it only takes one successful foray before I can return and purchase some plate mail and a helmet.

What is that mystery item at the end for 1gp?

Once I have a weapon and some armour, I'll buy torches if I need to.  The dungeon is dark, and impossible to navigate without a light source of some sort.  Some races have Infravision, the ability to see in the dark: dwarves, orcs, hobgoblins, and presumably a number of others I've not played yet. These races have been my favourites to play so far, because not only is it nice to not have to worry about torches, but Infravision lets you see one square ahead, whereas torches only illuminate the square you're standing in. Mapping with torches is a pain. Magical light is even better than torches, but I'll write more about spells lower down.

After buying equipment I head to the On the House Used Monster Shop, where a follower can be obtained for free. I normally go for a Stone Giant or a Pyrohydra, for maximum hit points and killing power. I tried getting a high-level cleric, hoping that I'd be able to use his spells, but either it's not possible or I wasn't able to figure out how. A follower is necessary for any kind of survival, and meat shields are nice, but I'd really like to have a healer. I still feel like there's a catch to using this store, though. Why would they be giving me monsters for free? It seems to good to be true, and I'm sure that I'm missing something.

After that, I head into the dungeon to start mapping. The first-person 3D view is very reminiscent of Moria, but the view is larger.  The dungeon levels are 29x29 squares, which isn't excessively large, but it is big enough to make the process time-consuming. At first my maps showed that there would be plenty of unused space, but eventually I found some secret doors (by walking into walls) and it became apparent that every square would be used. There are pits scattered around that deal roughly 1-10 points of damage. There are also a number of navigational tricks introduced here for the first time in CRPGs that will go on to plague gamers in the 1980s: teleporters, squares that extinguish your light sources, and "spinners" (squares that randomly change the direction you're facing). It reminds me very much of Bard's Tale and Wizardry, and there's more to come on that.  (Given this game's obvious influence on Wizardry and Wizardry's influence on CRPGs in general - particularly those from Japan - it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Oubliette is the most influential of all the PLATO CRPGs.)

Combat is plentiful and quick. I've been fighting a who's who of the AD&D Monster Manual - goblins, orcs, giant centipedes, skeletons, and even some low-level fighters, clerics, thieves and magic-users. It's a large variety of monsters, rivalled only by Moria so far, but I suspect that the monsters in Oubliette offer more in the way of special abilities. Already I've been poisoned by a giant centipede (which drained 1 hit point per step), and come up against some Shadows which I was unable to hit with regular weapons.  (This is consistent with AD&D.)  Some monsters are found in small groups, and others - such as goblins - might be found in packs of 15.

The main problem with combat is that, unless you're playing a spellcaster, your options are limited: you can Fight, Hide or Evade.  (You can also scream for help, but that's not very useful without other players around.) Hiding doesn't always work, but when it does it allows you to avoid being attacked by enemies and let your companions finish them off; it's probably great as part of a group, especially for Thieves. Evade lets you run away, but most of the time I haven't been able to do so successfully. Fight is your basic melee attack, and most battles are spent pressing F over and over as you trade blows. Your Dexterity determines how quickly you get to act in relation to your enemies: I had one character who was attacking three or four times before the other side got their turn. It also seems to me that the monsters only attack you one at a time, perhaps due to narrow tunnels or some such justification. Whatever it is, it makes the game at least vaguely survivable.

Getting the drop on two kobolds (which are depicted with an icon straight out of Moria).

With those limited options, though, Oubliette is pretty much nothing but a game of chance for a solo character. You might survive for a while with a suitably strong character (one with a lot of hit points and a high Dex), but eventually it will go against you. And that's just on dungeon level 1, with basic monsters; I imagine things get even hairier on the lower levels. Spells might make a difference, but most of the spellcasting classes don't begin with enough hit points to survive for long, so I haven't had much of a chance to experiment. Taking a look at the Help file, I think I need to try out the Ranger class, as it has good fighting ability and can cast both Magic-User and Cleric spells. It's difficult to qualify for, but it looks to be worth it.

Magic is another part of the game that is reminiscent of Wizardry in particular.  The spell selection is pure AD&D, but every spell has it's own name derived from a consistent set of syllables each with their own meaning.  The sleep spell, for example, is called NARGOR (meaning not-thought) , fireball is FIEMINAT (meaning fire-opening), cure light wounds is KOMINAH (meaning close-opening), and so on  And if you doubt the influence this game had on Wizardry, the light spell is named DUMAPIC, just like the location spell in that game.  Spells are split into separate lists for Clerics and Magic-Users (with the Cleric list focused on healing and the magic-user list on offense), and the spells are also organised by level, with the least powerful spells at first level and the most at level 7.  Every time you cast a spell in Oubliette you need to type in the full name, which can get a bit irritating, especially in combat. It's necessary, at least when starting out, to have a cheat sheet with the spell names written down on it for reference. The only one I've used with any regularity is MORPIC, the Cleric's light spell, which has greater range than a regular torch and Infravision, and also reveals secret doors.

Uhhh, in English please?

Sometimes after combat you will find a treasure chest, and can inspect it for traps, which can THEN be disarmed. As with spell-casting, you need to type in the complete name of the trap to be disarmed, and even if you get it right there's no guarantee you'll be successful. I've encountered Sprinklers (which put out your light source), Teleporters, Poison-Needles, Stunners, and a bunch of others I'm forgetting.  Apparently there's even a trap that changes your gender, which is Gary Gygax as hell. Again, this is exactly like Bard's Tale (and possibly Wizardry, which I'm not as familiar with). The similarities are inescapable.

So far, I've only had one character that survived for more than about 15 minutes - a Hobgoblin hirebrand named Hobgob (I'm expending minimum effort on names, due to the game's high mortality rate).  I'm not sure what level I reached with him (as I can't find where the game displays character level), but I estimate that I was level 5 or 6, as I had 59 hit points.  I spent a long time angsting about not being able to figure out how to level up, only for the game to do it for me automatically when I returned to the Castle. (Or perhaps it was when I returned to my guild, I'm not sure.)  I had become virtually immune to combat by the time I had 40 hit points, aside from the aforementioned Shadows which I had to run away from. Traps were my biggest worry, especially pit traps - those are often strategically placed to be unavoidable, and I never figured out a way to cross them without taking damage. In the end I was killed by a Poison-Needle trap on a chest; most chests on dungeon level 1 aren't trapped at all, but this one got me, and I wasn't able to make it back to the castle before I died.

Oh, he was level 6, it says it right there.

To be honest, I was relieved when Hobgob died, as I was starting to believe that, with enough grinding, I'd have a decent chance of survival. Perhaps that's still the case, but I don't aim to find out. I'm going to finish my level 1 map, and get the hell out. I don't even have to feel that guilty about it, because the single-player version for Commodore 64 will come up on my list eventually. When it does, I'll tackle that game with greater diligence. As for the PLATO version of Oubliette, I'll be happy to leave it in the dust after another post or two.

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