Monday, September 26, 2016

Moria: Examining the Interface

I'm going to be playing this game for quite some time to come, so if I have to post once a week or so, I'll need to discuss every inch of this game in depth.  In more modern games, that could be done by talking about the story, and the various decisions I made through the game.  Alas, games of the vintage of Moria don't have a story, and the games are less about decision-making than repeating the same processes and routines over and over again.

So rather than focus on story and decisions, I'll be doing a series of posts on different mechanical aspects of the game.  Luckily, Moria is really complex for the time.  In today's post I'm going to put up a regular screenshot, and dissect every little facet of it.

I'll begin with the main view, which is the greenish/brown rectangle in the middle.  The background colour changes based on which dungeon you're in; green/brown denotes the Forest.  The view is similar to later RPGs like Wizardry, Might & Magic and the Gold Box AD&D games: a wire-frame maze shown from a first-person perspective.  Indeed, this is probably the very first of its kind.  The square directly ahead of my character has a door to the north and a door to the east.

Written at the top of this rectangle is the word "Room".  The dungeons are designed in alternating blocks of Rooms and Corridors, each one 6x6 squares.  The Corridors are composed entirely of thin straight passages, with blocks of empty space that can only be accessed by casting a Passwall spell.  There's nothing of interest in the corridors except for wandering monsters.  The Rooms have more interesting layouts that use the entire 6x6 space, and they are where you'll find stairs, water holes and the occasional magic item.  You'll also see "N 2,1" written in the bottom corner: this shows the direction you're facing (in my case, north), and your coordinates within your current Room or Corridor.  I'm currently 2 squares east and 1 square north from the bottom left of the Room.

Up the top, right in the middle is a square that says "Forest (11)".  Obviously, this shows the dungeon you're in, and the level.  I'm currently mapping Level 11 of the Forest, out of 60 levels total.  I have a long way to go, but then again the feeling that I'm a sixth of the way there is quite heartening.

Let's go to the bottom right section, labelled "Group Members".  My group has only one member, and that's my character British (no awards for guessing my inspiration here).  The game can be played in multiplayer, where you can join other people's groups and fight together.  There aren't exactly a whole lot of people playing the game these days, so I haven't had the opportunity to test these features out.

Above that, we have "Char Stats".  Cunning can be used to trick foes in combat, and also helps you avoid traps when opening chests.  Piety is used to pray in combat, and can be used to destroy foes or to heal your character.  Valor measures your general combat prowess for when you just want to whack a monster with a sword.  Wizardry determines your spellcasting, for combat spells as well as those cast during exploration.  Your stats go up as you use them, although the gains become less frequent as the numbers get higher.  My stats range from 30 to 35, as I've deliberately tried to keep my character balanced.  Perhaps I'd be better off focusing on one stat over the others, but I feel more comfortable trying to advance them all.

Each of these stats is also used to determine advancement in whichever Guild you join.  You can only join one guild, and there's one for each of the four stats.  A score of 20 is required to join the Guild as an Apprentice, and for every ten points thereafter you can raise another rank.  Once your score hits 50 you can become the Guildmaster.

Vitality starts at 100, and is the equivalent of hit points: you lose them when hit in combat, and when they reach zero you're dead.  Casting spells also drains Vitality, but spells cost less the higher your Wizardry score.  Moria progresses in real time, which includes healing: if you leave an injured character motionless for a minute or two your Vitality will be restored to full.

Below that is Age.  Characters begin at age 13, and gradually get older as time progresses on the game.  Apparently you can die of old age at some point after you reach 100.  I haven't gotten there yet, but I hope it doesn't happen to my character before I can achieve my goals.

Gold is self-explanatory, and I never seem to have enough of it.  There's a huge selection of weapons and armour to buy in the shop, some of which costs well over a million gold.  You also need money to advance your guild rank.  My character British is an Apprentice in the Circle of Wizards (you can see his rank written at the bottom of this section).  My Wizardry score is high enough to raise my rank to the next level, but I also need to have donated a million gold to the guild.  So far I've given them 200,000, but grinding for gold is a slow process.  I'd like to buy better gear, but there's always that trade-off between equipment and saving for the next guild rank.  I can't foresee getting to a point where I'll ever have too much gold.

I'm not entirely sure about the purpose of the Score.  It goes up as you defeat monsters, and I think it's just there to determine your place in the Hall of Fame.

Now to the left-hand column.  "Spells On" simply shows which spells you have active.  I have two spells running: Light and Protection.  Light shows secret doors, and Protection makes you harder to kill in battle.  There's no reason not to have them on all the time: a single casting lasts basically forever, only running out when you go back to town.  The other spell I could have running is Precognition, which lets you know whether monsters have any treasure.  I'm more than willing to fight monsters regardless of any treasure they might have, so I don't see a need for it.

Below that is "Weapons/Items", which shows what I'm carrying.  Items above the line are equipped, and those below the line are unequipped.  Each item equipped has a rating for Attack and Defense.  I currently have two weapons equipped: the Magic Javelin and the Rod of Fear.  Once your Valor reaches 30 you can wield two weapons, but before that you can only have a weapon and a shield.  Obviously shields grant a better defense, but as most weapons have a Defense rating of their own I prefer to get my Attack higher and dual-wield; the loss of Defense is negligible.  Unequipped items can be sold at the shops, or left in an item locker at your Guild.

Finally, in the bottom left corner is the "Supplies" section.  You need to carry food and water, and if you run out of either your Vitality will be drained away with every step.  You can buy food and water in the city, but you can also find them in the dungeons as well.  Some monsters (mostly animals) will replenish your food supplies when killed, which is a really neat touch.  There are water holes dotted throughout the dungeons, although some are poisoned and will drain your Vitality.  This is probably the first CRPG that requires tracking of food, but thankfully it's easy to manage, and running out isn't all that punishing.

So that's the interface of Moria: it works very well, and innovated a lot of RPG staples that we'll be seeing at least until the mid 1990s.  I might have some problems with this game, but the way it looks and functions isn't one of them.  (Except for that tiny, tiny view.  Is there any reason for it to be so small?)

The next few posts will be on various aspects of the game: monsters, spells, combat.  Anything else I can think of.  Gotta fill that time, you know?  This game is a behemoth.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Moria: Let's Try This Again

I played Moria for a while last year, until eventually giving up.  I always planned to get back and finish it, but the monolith that was The Game of Dungeons v8 intervened, and sucked up a solid year of gaming.  Now I'm back, and with no other games to distract me I plan to go hard at Moria and complete it.

I've posted about the game before, beginning with this post right here, but it's been such a long time that I feel like I should run down the basics again. Here goes.

Moria is, of course, and D&D-style fantasy RPG, originally developed for the PLATO mainframe by Kevet Duncombe and Jim Batton circa 1975.  It's the first ever CRPG to use a first-person perspective, and it may even qualify as being the first-ever multi-player RPG.  Whatever else I say about the game, it should never be forgotten just how innovative and ground-breaking it is.

The game is set in the land of Moria, which is a subterranean realm split into six areas: City, Wilderness, Forest, Desert, Cave and Mountain.  The City and the Wilderness have but one level, and the other four have sixty levels each.  Don't expect the names to correspond to the geography, though: everywhere you go in Moria it's nothing but wire-frame mazes, and the only thing that changes is the colour of the walls.

You can tell it's a forest because the background colour is green.  Sort of.

There are three goals to strive for in the game: making it onto the Hall of Fame, becoming the master of one of the guilds, and finding the Reaper's Ring.  The Hall of Fame is simply a list of the players who have scored the most points.  Points are earned by killing monsters, so theoretically all I have to do to earn a place in the Hall is grind, grind and grind some more.  Becoming a Guildmaster is a matter of raising the relevant stat to 50, and spending a load of gold (about 3 million, if my calculations are correct).  Again, lots of grinding involved here.  The Reaper's Ring is my ultimate goal, and can only be found in the deep levels of the Forest, Desert, Cave and Mountain.  Apparently it drops a level every time it's discovered, and was last found in Level 38.  Once I've located this bad boy, I'm going to call it game over.

That's me: British, Apprentice Wizard.  Sitting last in the monthly records.  
Only 48,000 points to go!

Characters have four stats: Cunning, Piety, Valor and Wizardry.  Each of these corresponds to one of the four Guilds.  The stats are also tied to the four different attack types in combat: trickery, prayer, fighting, and spellcasting.  As you win battles, the stats most used will increase over time.

That's a basic run-down, but the game has loads of features: character aging, food and water, a robust equipment system, spells, and more that I'm probably forgetting.  Then there are the multiplayer options, which I haven't been able to use at all.  This is a game with a lot of stuff in it, at least as far as gameplay goes.

The problem is, that while the game has a lot of stuff in terms of features, it doesn't have a lot of stuff in the dungeons themselves.  It's the same problem I had with The Game of Dungeons v8.  The maps are enormous, but there's nothing in them except for wandering monsters.  It's holding my interest at the moment, but soon enough the long, hard slog will take its toll.

That's all I'll cover for now, as I only intended to do a quick refresher on the game.  I also don't want to exhaust any of the topics too quickly.  I could be at this one for a long while, and I need to make the material last.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Game of Dungeons v8: VICTORY (AT LONG LAST)

It feels weird not to be playing this game.  I started playing it on August 28th of 2015, and I finished it on August 28th of 2016.  One year.  And when I say that I played this game for a year, I mean a whole year.   I didn't take any breaks, I didn't go on hiatus.  I played a bunch of other games in the interim, but I always had The Game of Dungeons going in the background.  I played it almost every day.  So when I say that it feels weird, I mean it, because it became a sort of permanent fixture in my schedule.

My last post left off with my capture of the Grail, which is one of two items needed to win.  The other is the Orb, which sits at the bottom of the Caverns, one of three 30-level dungeons in the game.  The instructions mention that the Orb is guarded by a Dragon, but give no guidance as to how strong the Dragon might be, or how it might be defeated.  Version 5 of The Game of Dungeons had a special Dragon Spell that would kill the Dragon instantly, but at the cost of draining every last bit of your magic.  That spell isn't in Version 8, and to be honest it was more trouble than it was worth.  I didn't use it to win Version 5, so I won't miss it here.

The Caverns, despite being the third dungeon, were easier to map than the Tomb of Doom.  There were a few hairy ones; Level 25 was nothing but one-square rooms with doors on every side, and Level 30 was full of hallucination squares, making it impossible to know what was adjacent to my character.  Level 30 was also chock-a-block with teleporters leading back to Level 29, and the constant random teleportation was really frustrating.  There was nothing as bad as the worst levels of the Tomb of Doom, though, which still take the cake as the most difficult mazes I've ever had to navigate.

Level 25 of the Caverns.  Brown lines are for doors, black for walls, 
blue and green for teleporters up and down.  Good luck navigating 
this sucker: remember, every time you enter you'll be in a 
random location.

Looking at my notes, I just noticed that I either forgot to map Level 15, or it got deleted somehow.  I must admit to some small temptation to grind up another character and finish that last map, but there's no way.  I can get obsessive about these things, but even I have limits.

After mapping out the Caverns (with the aid of many Astral Potions), it was time to make the final foray.  As I did when going for the Grail, I made sure to drink a Potion of Revival before heading to Level 30: it would ensure my resurrection if I died, albeit at the cost of all my magical items, including the Grail.  It's not ideal, but it's better than outright death.  This is a hard game, but I'm thankful that there are safety nets in place for players that want to use them.

Level 30 can be accessed quickly by use of the Excelsior Transporter (found on Level 1), at the cost of a small number of hit points.  Getting back up is more difficult.  With an Astral Potion you can easily move up and down between levels, but without one doing so eats up your spell slots.  I was being careful, and the whole process should have gone easily, but I had one last scare that almost ruined everything.

After buying a Revival Potion, I left the Potion Shop and started teleporting myself down, not using the Excelsior Transporter but using my own spell power.  This is what I would normally have done while Astral, and I had gotten into a routine with it.  By the time I realised my mistake I was on about Level 20, and I started frantically teleporting back up.  My spell power ran out on Level 13, and I had to make the long slog back to the surface with no magic to protect me.  I managed it with about 50 hit points (out of 800+), despite one heart-stopping moment where I fell in a chute I hadn't marked on my map and tumbled from Level 4 back to Level 10.  It was one last bit of stupidity and suspense from a game that's provided me plenty of both.

Finding the Orb and the Dragon was, as expected, a bit of an anticlimax.  There's no warning that they're nearby, and I'm not even sure that they're always found in the same square.  They just appeared suddenly as I was exploring, and even though I was actively looking for them it still took me a few moments to register that I'd reached my goal.

The poor old Dragon doesn't even get his own icon.

Killing the Dragon was similarly anticlimactic.  The game's two most damaging spells are Fireball and Lightning Bolt; I wasn't about to try casting a fire spell on a Dragon, so I opted for the Lightning Bolt.  It was enough to kill the Dragon instantly.  Like I said, anticlimactic, but in a game that's so long and time-consuming I'm not going to complain that the final battle was too easy.

With the Orb in hand, I started teleporting back to the surface.  My magic ran out on Level 9, but I had no trouble in making it cautiously back to the surface.  I took a quick snapshot of my character on the verge of success, to preserve for posterity.

It should be noted that the name 'npm' was something I typed in accidentally (it was meant to be my password).  I could have changed it to something more evocative, but I ended up just going with it.  I also didn't begin the game as an Elf: I was polymorphed when I read a cursed book.  I hate elves on principle, but being polymorphed costs a point of Endurance.  As much as I hate Elves, I don't hate them enough to compromise my stats.

And now, the long-awaited victory sequence:

See that, above?  That's what I got for my efforts.  One word, marred by a bunch of vector lines.  There's an extreme pettiness to this, as though the creators of the game just refused to graciously congratulate anyone who beat the game.  There's also a certain amount of humour to be gained from the fact that I strove for a whole year just for this.  I laughed, anyway.

This is more like it: a leaderboard!  There I am, at the top, and even though my character had a terrible name, it's the second-best name on there.  Huzzah!  Huzzah for npm!

Having finished version 8 of The Game of Dungeons, I'm glad that I played it.  I very nearly didn't bother; I assumed that it would be slightly altered or improved from version 5, but basically the same game.  While there are similarities, the two are different enough that I would consider them different games.  It makes me wonder about the other versions, and in what ways they might have been different.  At this point in time they're lost to the ages, which is a damn shame.

The main reason I decided to play Version 8 is that I loved Version 5 so much: it's currently ranked second out of all the games I've played on the blog, and it's the top-rated RPG.  Version 8 is larger, longer, and more difficult, but there's one thing it isn't: better.  The earlier game was tight, and although it was difficult and featured perma-death, it wasn't so long that it felt like a slog.  Version 8 is a poster-child for the idea that bigger is not necessarily better.  It has a total of 90 dungeon levels, which would be a lot even in an RPG where you can save your game.  With perma-death, it's just way too many.

I guess I have to do a Final Rating for this, don't I?  It's a strange feeling to be boiling a year of my life down to a few numbers, but that's the nature of the blog, innit?  Besides, it's not like playing The Game of Dungeons is all I did in the last twelve months.  Watched a lot of pro-wrestling as well.  It's a life well lived.


Story & Setting: Like most games of this vintage, these categories are virtually non-existent.  There's not so much a story as a goal: get the items from the dungeons.  Why are those items there?  Why are they important?  Why are those monsters guarding them?  Pretty basic questions given the set-up, but there are no answers forthcoming.  The story is the game, and the game is the story.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The game has a strong variety of monsters, with differing strengths and weaknesses, but by the end those differences get smoothed away because you can brute force your way through most encounters with little regard for tactics.  The monster variety is on a par with those in Version 5, with the main difference being the addition of the various slimes.  I'm not even sure they qualify for this category, as they're more obstacles than characters, so I'll rank this game equal to its predecessor.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The graphics are simple, and there's no sound, but I do love that orange-and-black PLATO colour scheme.  There's a lot to be said for graphics that are functional, as well.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: While combat and spellcasting in this game are simple (involving little more than a few keystrokes), the game has a lot of functions and implements them flawlessly.  Just think, how many times have you screwed up a keyboard-based game because of an errant keystroke?  It's happened to me more times than I can count, but in this game, which I played for a solid year, it didn't happen even once.  The key commands are set up in such a way that the really important ones are paired with the SHIFT or CTRL keys, which makes it really hard to screw things up.  I don't think I've ever played a game that has considered this so carefully, and I have to give it kudos for that.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Challenge:  This is where this game is going to take a hit, because it's just too long.  I really like perma-death as a game feature, but it only works for very specific types of games.  While this is the right style of game to feature perma-death, it's exactly the wrong length.  I was prepared to rate this at the minimum score, but the ability to buy potions saves it.  If I'd figured that out earlier I would have finished this game months ago. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: I'm struggling to think of anything this game does that wasn't done better in other, earlier PLATO RPGs.  I was thinking that it might be the first RPG to feature multiple dungeons, but then I remembered Moria, which has four.  The use of slimes as a hazard is a first, though not a particularly notable one.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: I vaguely recall enjoying this game once, in the dim dark days when I first started playing it.  The fun long since drained out of the experience, and it simply became something I did.  It was part of my schedule, and by the end I was playing just to win, not because it was fun.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Does this game earn the bonus point?  HELL NO.  The above scores total 15 , which doubled gives a Final Rating of 30.  That puts it fourth from the bottom, and the lowest-rated RPG on the list.  That's perhaps unfair: a lot of care went into the interface of the game.  It's a better game than, say, Space or Dungeon Campaign. It's just a shame that it was hurt by being so difficult and so, so interminably long.


Somewhat later in this blog I made the decision to overhaul my Final Rating system, so I'm going back through and fixing all of the games I've already played as of March 2020.  I've ditched the Innovation and Influence category, and replaced it for CRPGs with a category for Combat.  I've also changed the purpose of the bonus points, saving them for games that are important, innovative, influential, or have features that are otherwise not covered by my other categories.

Also, the Final Rating is a boring name.  The CRPG Addict has his GIMLET.  The Adventure Gamers have their PISSED rating.  Data Driven Gamer has his harpoons.  So I'm ditching the generic name and calling my new system the RADNESS Index: the Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores. It's a pretentious mouthful, but I'm going with it.

Combat: This version of the game's combat isn't all that different to that it version 5, so I'm giving it the same score.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1. It's a significant part of the dnd lineage, and it's possible it was played by more people than v5.4. These games were in constant development, and at this point it's impossible to know which version was the most influential.

The Game of Dungeons v8's RADNESS Index is 31. That puts it equal 8th so far, and 5th out of seven CRPGs. It's significantly below v5.4, but I think it changed most of the things I really liked about that game for the worse.

NEXT: I've started Moria again, which is another PLATO RPG and could be another multi-month affair.  I'm pretty sure, though, that it might be the last massive mainframe RPG I have to tackle.  There's Oubliette, but I've heard that game is basically unwinnable as a single player.  My current plan is to go hard at Moria and get it out of the way.  It's going to harm the blog in the short term, but I really want to get these huge games behind me.