Monday, February 20, 2017

Oubliette (1977)

After far too long, I'm starting another game for the blog.  That doesn't mean that I'm done with Moria. Far from it; I'll still be plugging away at that monstrosity in the background, but there's little more that I can say about it.  It'll get another post once I'm finished with it, and in the mean-time I'll be pushing ahead and playing more games from 1977 and 1978.

There's always a sense of excitement that comes with starting a new game, but this time around it's mixed with quite a bit of trepidation.  Oubliette is another PLATO RPG, and as readers of the blog will know the last few of those have consumed my life.  I really don't want to get bogged down in another one, and I really don't want to be bogged down in two at the same time.  The good news is that Oubliette is nowhere near as large as Moria. (At 240-odd large dungeon levels, few games are.)

Castles seem to be the standard thing to put on your PLATO title screen

Oubliette was created primarily by Jim Schwaiger, and released on PLATO in November 1977. Like most PLATO games it was in continuous development for a number of years, with changes being made to it up through 1982. I have no idea what differences there might be between the game as it was in 1977, and the 1982 version. Presumably the one on cyber1 - which is the one I'm playing - is the version from 1982.  The game was later released on home computers, and even on iphone (as the title screen above indicates). I'll cover the home computer release when I get to it in the timeline, but needless to say I'll probably never get to the iphone version.

Oubliette is a dungeon exploration game that is viewed from a first-person perspective. The game is intended for multiple players, who each control a single character and interact within a shared environment. It can be played as a single-player game, but survival is difficult, and the intention is that characters will band together to form parties before braving the depths. As far as I can tell, there's no goal to be achieved in Oubliette: characters simply band together to explore the dungeon for treasure, and presumably the multiplayer interaction and competition was incentive enough to keep people interested. It's a relief, to be honest; I can drop this game at any time without feeling like I've missed something.

Beginning the game, with my character standing on the stairs to the dungeon.

Character creation is more complex than anything that's been seen to this point.  The first step is to choose from one of 15 races.  The standard D&D races are there, along with some from Tolkien (Uruk-Hai, Eldar), some monsters (Ogre, Pixie, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Kobold), and one pulled from Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series (Ur-Vile), which is surprising considering that the first book of that series had only been released a year prior.

Following that your attributes are determined, and they're the standard six from Dungeons & Dragons: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Constitution, and Dexterity. The race you chose earlier determines the range for each of these attributes.  Your gender is also randomly determined here, which seems an odd thing to leave to chance. You can reroll as many times as you like until you get a character that you like.

Once you've accepted your attributes, you choose an Alignment from one of three: Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic. Some races will have restrictions here (for example, I created an Orc character that could not choose Lawful). I'm not sure what effect this has on the game at this point, except to affect what class you can choose in the next step.

Choosing a class comes next, and there are fifteen in the game: cleric, demondim (another one from Thomas Covenant), courtesan, hirebrand, mage, minstrel, ninja, paladin, peasant, ranger, raver (Covenant again), thief, sage, samurai, and valkyrie. The classes available to you are determined by race, class, and alignment. The unusual classes are harder to qualify for, whereas pretty much anyone can be a peasant.

Creating a character. Even with good stats like these, I only have a few classes to choose from.

Once a class is chosen, you get the option of starting in the castle or the dungeon. I always opt for the castle, and I'm not sure why you'd choose differently; starting in the dungeon with no gear or followers is basically suicide.

LIGNE Castle is the hub of the game, where characters can stock up on supplies, form parties, and do all sorts of other cool stuff. It's big - 29x29 squares - and there are tons of things to do. I'll hit some highlights below:

  • There's a separate guild for every class, and you need to join one in order to level up.  You can increase your guild rank by making donations, but there's no indication of how much is needed. I donated about 1,000 gold pieces with my first character, and my rank was still 0.  Once you have a ranking of 1 you can hire a companion that will follow you free of charge, but should that companion die your rank drops by one.
  • There are shops where you can buy charmed monsters, ranging from lowly kobolds right up to Orcus himself. There's even a shop where you can get these monsters for free, though I suspect that there's a catch with this that I haven't twigged to yet. These monsters stay with you until you rest, but you can get around that by selling them back to the shop then buying them back later on.

Obtaining a charmed monster for free.

  • Hotels where you can rest and recover lost hit points. You can rest anywhere in the castle, but it's quicker to do so in a hotel (and I'm pretty sure that character's age in this game, so time is a factor).
  • Taverns, which are the place where you go to join up with other adventurers and form parties. (Because even this far back, it was understood that all adventures begin in a tavern.)
  • Corwin's General Store, where you buy weapons, armour, torches and holy water.  Torches are valuable, because you need them to see in the dungeon unless you choose a race that can see in the dark. This is the main reason that I chose a dwarf as my initial character.
  • Merlin's Magic Shoppe, where you can buy and sell magic items. Items to buy are listed by category. You type in the category you want, and you get a list of available items with nothing to differentiate them but price. What you're buying is a mystery; presumably the more expensive the better, but I haven't bought anything yet so it's impossible to say.
  • There's a Jail where you can look for character's by name. It's not clear how you end up in jail, or what you can do should you find the character you're looking for.
  • Hidden in an out-of-the-way spot is the Patriarch's Temple, but said Patriarch will only see you if you make a donation. According to the documentation he can help identify magic items, but I haven't tested this out yet (nor have I actually found any magic items).
  • The Morgue is another place where you can search for character's by name. I understand that you can find the corpses of dead characters in the dungeon and return them to the city; this is probably where they go if you don't have the gold or the desire to resurrect them.
  • You can visit Kesim's Casino and gamble on blackjack, craps or cockroach racing. These Are the first gambling mini-games in CRPGs to my knowledge, and the cockroach racing is delightfully odd. It's a good place to build up your gold before buying weapons, I've found.

Winning money on the roaches.

  • Brand's Potion Shop, where you can buy various potions and scrolls. When your basic healing potion costs around 70,000gp, though, the prices are probably too high.
  • Honest John's Bank and Trust. I haven't done anything here yet, but I can only assume that you can deposit and withdraw gold here. (I can't check right now, because cyber1 is down for backups.) I need to come back here to check if I'm able to rob the bank.
  • Ghenghis' Army Recruiter, which is a mystery. There's a sign that says it's closed due to budget cuts, and there's nothing else that can be done here.

With the city mapped, monster companion recruited (a pyrohydra), and armaments purchased, it was time for me to take Axebeard the Dwarf into the dungeon.   I did quite well for a while, surviving a number of battles and forays.  The monsters that I encountered were the usual array of low-level D&D types: rats, goblins, kobolds, etc, in groups of about 6.  My character gained about 3,000 experience points, but I couldn't figure out how to level up, or even if I had enough xp to do so.  It's supposed to be done at the guild, but the option never appeared for me.

In the end, I was killed by a band of 7 kobolds.  It happened very suddenly: one second I was at full hit points, the next I was dead.  Combat was a little hard to fathom.  The word 'Options' appears under the name of the enemy, and you have a limited time to input your command (F for fight, in most cases).  A message would come up telling me if I killed an enemy (and if my charmed monster did so), then a message would flash telling me what the monsters did.  That message was very quick, and I never did get a good look at what it said.  At the moment, the combat workings are a bit of a mystery to me.

Deciding whether to delete my character or wait for someone else to retrieve his body. Odds seem slim for the latter in 2017.

The influences here are strong, and obvious.  The first is, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. More specifically, the original pre-AD&D version of the game.  The monster list makes it obvious that they're working from the AD&D Monster Manual, but there are enough references and bits of terminology that I'm confident in saying that the rest of Oubliette is based on the original D&D rules. More than any other game previous, this game emulates D&D, right down to the way that early campaigns were played.  The first D&D campaigns were run by a single referee in a single, huge dungeon, with a rotating pool of players that all explored the same location.  Oubliette emulates that exactly, and copies over a lot of the rules and monsters as well. The main deviation is in the number of races and classes, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jim Schwaiger and his players had homebrewed all of the new types for their own campaign. It's how things were done in those days.

The other influence is Moria, which was also a first-person dungeon exploration game where you could join up with other characters. It had a large city, shops with loads of stuff to buy, guilds, characters that age, and a bunch of other similarities to Oubliette.  As far as I can tell, Oubliette takes those ideas and expands on them, providing a more varied and interesting game experience.That's my first impression, anyway; we'll see if it holds up.

I'm not setting myself any goals for Oubliette just yet; I've learned my lesson with Moria.  There aren't any goals I can set really; the game itself doesn't provide any.  It will all depend on how difficult it is.  If I find that I can survive on my own, I'll try to map out the 10-level dungeon.  If it proves to be too deadly, I'll play it for a few weeks and then move on.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Games of Summer: 2016-2017

I've done one of these posts over the last few holiday seasons, so I figured I might as well make it an annual tradition. Usually summer finds me playing a lot of games, but not doing much in the way of writing and blogging. This year was no different. These are the games that have been keeping me occupied, and holding up the blog.

Final Fantasy 1 and 2: Smartphones are great for portable gaming, but I find that most modern phone games don't really do it for me. So rather than limit myself to what's available on the Android store, I downloaded a NES emulator and have been running through the first two games in the Final Fantasy series.  The first game is a cracker. It draws heavily from Ultima and Wizardry, and provides a really complete RPG experience for 1987. I can't think of any areas that it's weak in, to be honest, and it avoids a lot of the over-linearity that plagues later JRPGs. Final Fantasy 2 (I'm playing a fan translation of the Japanese game, which was never officially released in English in its original form) has much more of a story focus, and although the combat and magic are similar the character advancement is completely different (FF1 had classes and levels, whereas FF2 has skills that level up through use). It's refreshingly open world - my first foray into the wilderness ended when I wandered into an area full of monsters that I had no business fighting yet. It's not as immediately enjoyable as FF1, and I'm starting to lose my grip on the story a bit, but there's a lot of potential.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: I'm a bit of a Zelda nut, but I'd taken a fairly long hiatus from the series after Wind Waker (which I loved). I spent much of the early part of last year completing Twilight Princess (which is good but too long) and now I'm trying to wrap up Skyward Sword before the new game comes out. I like it, but it's lacking a lot of the exploratory fun of the older games in the series. There's also a lot of backtracking, and it can get tedious playing through the same areas over again. The motion controls for sword-fighting are really well done, though. There's a lot of clever stuff in this game, but it doesn't really give me what I'm looking for in a Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Recently I got bitten by the retro collector bug, as well as the authenticity bug, so I acquired an old CRT television. Now I have my old consoles ready to hook up to it, and I'm planning to play through all of my childhood games before building up my collection. I decided to start with Ocarina, mostly because I couldn't find the cord to my Super Nintendo which meant that I wasn't able to play A Link to the Past. (Yes, A Link to the Past is better than Ocarina of Time. Why is this even a debate?) Ocarina basically ruled my life for a good chunk of the late 90s, and I remember it very well. I thought I'd discovered everything in it, but this time around I'm still finding new stuff. It's a little ropier than I remembered, but then again it is nearly 20 years old. It holds up remarkably well.

I've also been watching quite a bit of FIFA '17, as my son plays it a lot, as well as playing Moria of course.  This might seem like a lot of games to have on the go simultaneously, but it's not so bad.  I have a phone game for when I'm out of the house, a game connected to the main home TV, a game to play on my CRT when the main TV is being used, and a game to play on my laptop for the blog.  I'm just covering all of my bases.

As for Moria, I have a character who just became Guild Master of the Circle of Wizards, the second time I've achieved that mark. I might be jinxing myself here, but I'm making good progress. I've also started on Oubliette, another PLATO RPG, so expect a post on that fairly soon.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Moria: Equipment and Treasure

There are moments in life where there's nothing you can do except stare vacantly, with a stunned expression on your face. These moment might be surprising, or shocking, or perhaps even traumatic, but however you got there it's so overwhelming that your body freezes, and your brain locks up, and the only sensation you feel is a slow lurching of your stomach as the reality of the situation sinks in.

I just had a moment like that while playing Moria.

For regular readers of the blog (assuming that I have any left after my long hiatus) this will be a familiar story: I'd started over with a new character, and I was slowly grinding his stats upwards until I felt confident enough to explore the deepest levels of the dungeon.  Then disaster struck, and I died once again. My previous failures, however, had come at the hands of monsters, or perhaps my own impatience. This one was inflicted on me by the game itself.

I'm playing Moria through a PLATO emulator, which means that I need to be connected to the internet. The dangers of that are obvious: the internet is an unstable beast, and drop-outs occur from time to time. For a game with perma-death that could be game-breaking, but what I've found with all of the PLATO games I've played so far is that the games take this into account. All of them so far, without fail, have saved my character's status and location during a drop-out, and I've had no trouble logging back in and picking up where I left off.

Until now, that is (or some time in January to be more accurate; this post has been a long time coming). PLATO was running particularly slowly that night, and I'd already experienced a couple of drop-outs. After about the fourth of fifth, I cracked the shits with it and rebooted my system, hoping that it might help. At which point my computer had to install some updates, because I never turn the bloody thing off. So half an hour later I load up Moria again, and cue the stunned shock because my character was gone. Dead, gone, gonzo, wrap it up, nothing to be done about it but start over from scratch.

And when I say start over from scratch, I really mean it. I've lost strong characters before, but starting over wasn't so bad then because I had built up a hefty list of powerful weapons and armour in my guild locker that could be passed down to my next character. Whenever I died I would just create another guy right away, and all of those goodies would be passed down to him. It's a good leg-up that makes the initial grinding process much more survivable. Well, this time the contents of my guild locker were gone. Your gear only gets passed down if you create a new character right away, and I must have taken too long. I was back to fighting naked with a club.

I'm not really sure how this death happened. It can't be because I took too long to log back in; I've gone days before getting back to it in similar situations. It can't be because I was in the middle of combat; I've had drop-outs in the middle of fights before, and the fight has effectively paused until I came back. Maybe it was a combination of these two factors? Maybe it was a freak occurrence? I'd like to blame the PLATO emulator, but I've been playing games on it regularly for nearly three years, and this is the first time I've had this problem. I think that's a pretty good track record.

I've got to admit, this is the closest I've come to throwing this game in. I'd be justified, I think: I've made the Hall of Fame, and I've become the master of a guild. I can't do it, though. The Reaper's Ring would haunt my dreams forever. I have to find it. So yes, once again I'm grinding away with WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling in the background. The treadmill of life goes on.

(I wanted to put a shot of the death screen in here, but I've never captured one, and I'm not about to try.)

On that cheery note, it's time for my final special post on Moria: equipment and treasure. This might be a big one, because it covers a number of topics, and is probably the most extensively detailed part of the game.

Armour & Weapons
Buying new weapons and armour is your main path to getting stronger in combat, and there are a lot of them in this game. They come in five categories: 2-handed weapons, 1-handed weapons (including shields), Body, Head, Arms, and Miscellaneous. Each item in these categories has a rating for Attack and Defense.

You start off only being able to wield a 2-handed weapon, because you can't use 1-handed weapons until you have a Valor score of 15. 1-handed weapons start out about the same as 2-handed, but they range up to an Offensive rating of 30, whereas 2-handed weapons cap out at 21. You can also use a shield with a 1-handed weapon, which is a big Defensive boost. Once your Valor reaches 30 you can wield two 1-handed weapons at once, which is the best way to boost your Offensive rating; it doesn't have much of an adverse effect on Defense either, because the better weapons boost that score too. Weapons range from daggers (with an Offensive rating of 3 and a cost of about 150 gold) to Tridents (Offensive 30, Defensive 10, cost of over 1 million gold).

Body armour is purely defensive, and again caps out with a Defensive score of 30 for the Cloak of Death. There are only three types of armour for Arms, with Gauntlets being the best (as they provide an Offensive bonus to go along with the Defensive). Similarly there are only four pieces of Head armour, with the best being the Helmet of Life (Defensive rating 24). There's only one miscellanous item, and that's the purely defensive Holy Sash.

All of the various types of weapons and armour (91 in total) can be bought at the Weaponry stores in the City. As you may have noticed, they can get expensive: the best items can cost over 1 million gold. Between these and the guild fees for advancement, it takes a long time until gold becomes worthless in the game. (It happens eventually, but at that point I felt like I was pretty close to finishing the whole thing.)

All of the one-handed weapons and shields

You can also find armour and weapons after winning a battle. There's no apparent rhyme or reason to when they show up. It seems just as likely that you'll find an item on level 1 of the dungeons as on level 50, and the same goes for the strength of the items as well. Once I found a Helmet of Life within about ten minutes of starting a new character. I can't say for certain, but the sense I get is that any item could show up at any time in the game, and it's all down to luck (although apparently members of the Thieves' Guild will find them more often).

As mentioned, some of the items cost more the 1 million gold. Now here's a quandary: your character can't carry more than 1 million at a time. (I discovered this the hard way, when I sold a gold nugget for about 800,000 gold when I already had over 900,000.) That's where haggling comes in. Whether buying or selling, you can negotiate the price with the shopkeeper, suggesting totals or refusing their offers until you hit on a total you're happy with (or the shopkeeper gives up). Generally you can sell an item for about triple the initial asking price, or buy an item for about three-quarters of the initial price. It's a fun mechanic at the beginning of the game, but when you end up doing it for every single purchase (for months and months on end) it gets really tedious. I would have preferred them just to price things lower and be done with the rigmarole.

Negotiating the price of a trident.

Most monsters will leave a treasure chest containing gold and jewels after a battle. (Curiously, the priest-class monsters are the ones that most often leave no treasure behind.) Most of the treasure you find is in gold pieces, but there are also gems with a greater value; pearls are worth 150gp, rubies are worth 800gp, emeralds are worth 4,000gp and diamonds are worth 20,000gp. The total value of treasure found increases the deeper you delve into the dungeons. Every now and then you'll get drops that are much higher than the normal value (say, 25,000 gold in an area where I would normally get 1,000). Rarely (and I mean very rarely) you might find a Gold Nugget or a Precious Stone. I've found three of these treasures in the whole time I've been playing, and they all sold for upwards of 500,000 gold.

I should mention that the chests are sometimes trapped, and there's no way of knowing.  You just have to open the chest and hope.  The most damage I've ever seen a chest trap inflict was 49, so I make sure that my Vitality is over 50 before opening one.  There's no other way to avoid being killed.

Taking the spoils from an opened chest.

Magic Items
In addition to dropping treasure and armaments, monsters occasionally leave behind magic items. These are items that all have some sort of special effect. I'll list the ones I've found below. The effects I've listed are my best guess in some cases; it's impossible to know what they do except through trial and error, and even then it's a mystery. I've done my best.

  • Torch: Simply put, it's an item that casts a Light spell. Casting Light costs a negligible amount of Vitality, and lasts practically forever, so I never found a use for these.
  • Aura of Light: Again, this one casts a Light spell. I couldn't find a difference between this and the Torch (except that this one can be sold for more gold).
  • Ring of Valor: I never did figure out what this ring does. My assumption is that it gives a bonus to Valor, but there's no way to tell. I keep them when I find them, but I have no idea if it's worth it.
  • Treasure Ring: I could be wrong, but I think this item cast the Treasure Finding spell when used. I find that spell pointless: all it does is tell you whether or not a group of monsters has any treasure. I make it a point to kill every monster I find, so I have no need for it.
  • Ring of Flight: You might think that this one gives you the power to fly, but in actual fact it increases your chance of fleeing from combat. Escaping is a necessary part of this game, so a Ring of Flight is a great item to have: I found that when I had one it never took me more than two tries to get away. (At least until I hit Level 52 of the dungeon, and a battle that I just couldn't run from no matter how many times I tried; I'm thinking that this item contributed to my death by making me overconfident.)
  • Life Ring: The best magic item in the game: when I was wearing it, I found that monsters did a little bit less damage. Some blows would even restore my character's Vitality, which was a great help. I can't be sure about it, but what I noticed was that more Vitality would be restored the longer I went without being hit; if I was hit two rounds in a row, the Life Ring had no effect on the second hit, but if I went four rounds without being hit the next hit would do four fewer points of damage. This and the Ring of Flight are the two items that I most want to find again.

There's no limit to the amount of magic items that you can equip (except for the overall limit of twelve items that your character can carry, which includes weapons and armour). Unwanted magic items can be sold at the Magic Store in the City, and haggled over just like weaponry. You can't buy magic items, unfortunately, and the ones that you sell are gone forever.

Magic Apples
Magic Apples are found at random in the dungeons, and have a variety of effects if you eat them. (Now that I think of it, it's possible that the other dungeons have replaced Apples with another item. I've been exclusively exploring the Forest, so I have no idea.) These effects are:

  • Casting a spell: The apple casts any one of the non-combat magic spells: Light, Protection or Locate Treasure.
  • Negating a spell: If you have one of the above three spells functioning, eating the apple will negate it. It's a minor nuisance.
  • Restoring Vitality: The apple restores your Vitality back to 100, which is a nice time-saver, but as you'll see that's utterly negated by the following effect.
  • Reducing Vitality: These apples drain your Vitality, and are the main reason that I always wait until my health is full before I eat an apple. (That's the negation I was talking about above; the healing saves time, but I've probably just waited to heal up anyway before eating the apple.) I've had apples that reduced me from a Vitality of 100 to one of 4, so I always use extreme caution. I've never had one take me from 100 to 0, but I occasionally get anxious about the possibility.
  • Reducing Stats: The apple takes away 1 or 2 points from your Valor, Piety, Cunning or Wizardry. It's irritating, especially when you're trying to grind them up.
  • Raising Stats: As above, but the apple adds a point to one of the four stats. This is literally the only thing worth eating magic apples for.

I go back and forth on whether to eat the magic apples or not. Of the six different effects, two of them are actively harmful and three are pointless. I still like to take a gamble on getting a small stat boost, but it's not worth the risk of losing points, or being killed. Currently, I've stopped eating them, except on rare occasions when my health is completely full when I find one.

So, that's it for Moria, at least as far as special posts go. I've covered the game in about as much depth as I'm capable of, and I doubt that I'll do another post until my eventual victory. (Yes, eventual. Shut it, you.)  In the meantime, it's back to my list, which will hopefully make things around here a bit more interesting. Here are the upcoming games:

  1. Oubliette (1977) - Another PLATO RPG (boooo). I understand that this one is heavily reliant on multiplayer, though, so I might be able to knock it out in a single post and move on. Here's hoping.
  2. A3 (1978) - The second text adventure created using Wander. It's a sci-fi number that at first glance comes across as quite sophisticated for the time.
  3. House of Seven Gables (1978) - Another text adventure joint from Greg Hassett, the 12-year-old prodigy.
  4. Acheton (1978) - A British text adventure that I've seen described as "enormous". Joy.
  5. King Tut's Tomb Adventure (1978) - Yet another game by Greg Hassett! Did that kid even go to school?
  6. Library (1978) - The third game created using Wander.
  7. Stuga (1978) - A swedish text adventure, which translates to "The Cottage". Sounds riveting!
  8. MUD1 (1978) - The first ever text-based "multi-user dungeon". I'm probably going to ignore multi-player games, but I'd like to take a look at this one out of historical curiosity.
  9. Treasure Hunt (1978) - Sounds like a variant of Hunt the Wumpus.
  10. Mystery Mansion (1978) - A murder mystery text adventure

That takes me to the end of 1978. That's a long run of adventure games in a row, which is the unfortunate side-effect of not really planning ahead. To be honest, it will be a welcome relief from the unrelenting slog of PLATO RPGs. And many of them will probably be short. Hopefully I can start making some headway, and actually get to some games that sane, living people have played.