Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Ultima: Dungeon Fundamentals

Having explored two of the game's continents, I had been given a number of quests by the kings of four separate castles.  I'd yet to complete two of those quests.  The Lost King, residing on the first continent I explored, had told me to "go now and kill a Gelatinous Cube".  On the second continent, the king of Castle Rondorlin said that I needed to kill a Carrion Creeper (a pretty obvious stand-in for D&D's Carrion Crawler).  I was getting a little tired of mapping the wilderness - a probably side-effect of noticing how similar the two continents are - so I decided that now was the time to mix it up with a bit of dungeon exploration.

Now that I think of it, the game doesn't tell you anywhere that these monsters are found in the dungeons.  I'm being guided by knowledge from previous play-throughs, so I know where to go, but someone unfamiliar with Ultima would be completely in the dark here.  I'm trying my best to approach this game from the standpoint of someone who hasn't played it before, but it really is impossible. The best I can do is try to call out these moments when I notice them.

I left off my last session near the castle of Lord British.  The nearest dungeon was Montor to the north-east, so I chose that one to explore.  I suppose that Mondain's Gate to Hell is actually closer, but it's also across the ocean, so I ignored it.  I'm not sure what happens when you die in this version of Ultima, and I don't want to risk being stranded on an island without my air-car.  So Montor and its easy overland route seemed like the safe choice.

A dungeon exploration screenshot from an earlier session.

The dungeons in Ultima run off a similar engine to Akalabeth, albeit one that seems to run much slower.  The view switches from the tile-based overhead view of Ultima's wilderness exploration to a first-person perspective.  Movement uses the same keys, with Enter moving forward, the "/" key turning you around, and the left and right arrows turning you in the appropriate direction.  If you leave the keyboard alone for a few seconds a turn will pass, so it's kind of in real time.

Every dungeon level has the same basic layout, with the only impassable walls being those shown below.

The major difference between each level is the position of the various doors and secret doors.  As with Akalabeth, a door takes up an entire square on the map, which I always find confusing at first.  Adding to that confusion is that the doors are sometimes replaced by chests or impassable force fields when you transition between levels. The ladders up and down between levels are always in the positions marked above, with up and down alternating from level to level.  The only exception is on level 1 where the ladder up is in the bottom right corner.  This all makes dungeon navigation fairly trivial, although I've still been diligently mapping the levels.  Here are some examples from the Dungeon of Montor:

Brown squares are doors and blue squares are
secret doors. P denotes an open pit, while T is a
hidden pit that dumps you to a lower level.

Monsters roam the levels in a seemingly never-ending supply; I don't think levels can be cleared out like they could in Akalabeth.  Combat involves trading blows with the (A)ttack command, as in the wilderness, but there are additional tactical concerns.  You can be surrounded on four sides, but you can also use positioning to your advantage, and fire at monsters from a few squares away if you have a missile weapon.  Speaking of which, it seems that the bug from Akalabeth that allowed the player to fire through walls has been eliminated.

Killing monsters rewards you with gold, as well as experience.  Any experience earned in the dungeon gives you double that amount in hit points when you make it back to the surface.  Grinding on the first few dungeon levels can net you a lot of hit points, but at around level 6 I found that I was losing more hit points than I earned.

Each grouping of two dungeon levels has it's own set of monsters, some of which have their own special abilities. I'll run through those that I've encountered so far.

Dungeon level 1-2:
  • Ranger. A fairly weak enemies with no special abilities.
  • Skeleton, ditto.
  • Bat.
  • Giant Rat. They seem a little stronger than the other enemies on these levels.
  • Thief. Not that strong, but on a successful hit they will steal one of your unequipped weapons. I lost most of the weapons I'd acquired at the Pillars of the Argonauts in this manner.

Dungeon level 3-4:
  • Giant Spider.
  • Viper.
  • Cyclops.
  • Orc.
  • Gelatinous Cube.  This monster will dissolve your armour on their first hit.  They can also be difficult to see at times, being depicted as a transparent square, which fits their D&D abilities really well.

Fighting a Gelatinous Cube with a coffin in the foreground.

Dungeon level 5-6:
  • Ettin, a kind of two-headed giants cribbed from D&D.
  • Minotaur.
  • Carrion Creeper. These guys are depicted graphically as crawling on the roof. This doesn't stop them from being blocked by hidden pits though.
  • Mimic.  They are graphically identical to treasure chests.
  • Lizard Man. They remind me of the absurd power levels you can reach in Akalabeth by transforming yourself into one of these monsters. Whenever I fight them here I like to think that I'm fighting an adventurer who has done just that.

Dungeon level 7-8:
  • Wandering Eye.  They look similar to Beholders from D&D. They don't have any of the special abilities from D&D thankfully. In future Ultima installments they'll be known as Gazers.
  • Liche.  They're depicted as floating heads.  I suspect that Richard Garriott was thinking here of D&D's demi-lich, which is a lich that has decayed to the point where only its skull is left.

I haven't explored any deeper than level 7, and I didn't stick around on that level for any great length of time.  I have no idea how deep the dungeons go.  I suspect ten levels, although the dungeons in Akalabeth were theoretically infinite.  I'll probably have finished dungeon delving in my next post.

In addition to monsters, there are coffins and treasure chests that contain gold.  I haven't encountered any traps on the treasure chests, but sometimes when I open a coffin there's a monster inside.  There are also pits.  Some are visible, and you can walk over them freely, or use them to drop down to a lower level.  The ones that are invisible will dump you down to a lower level without warning, but you can find them by using the (I)nspect command from one square away.  You can also avoid them by carrying rope and spikes, which can be bought at the weapon store.  I've noticed that these hidden pits only ever appear in the spaces between two impassable walls, so they're pretty easy to find.  Monster won't walk over them (even the monsters that can fly or crawl on the ceiling), so that's another way of figuring out where they are.

Some squares contain force fields, which look like laser barriers and are impassable.  You can't shoot through them either.  I gather that these force fields can be created by characters with the Create spell, and likewise gotten rid of with the Destroy spell.  I don't have access to either spell, so my only recourse is to go around them.

A Carrion Creeper behind a force field. The square I'm in has
a ladder going up, viewed from the side. You can't (K)limb a 
ladder unless you're facing it.

It didn't take long for me to complete my first quest; I had loads of hit points, and Gelatinous Cubes are found on level 3, which isn't too deep.  Along the way I did some mapping, and tested out a bunch of my new weapons.  The Triangle (a type of magic sword) worked here, and did quite a bit of damage.  For some reason it hadn't worked for me in the wilderness, I'm not sure what's going on there.  After a bit of experimentation I went back to my trusty Blaster, which does high damage and can be used at range.

At first I was pretty much impervious on the first few levels, probably because of the Reflect Armour that I was wearing.  That changed after I fought a Gelatinous Cube, and my armour got dissolved.  I was taking about 50 points of damage per attack on level 3, which isn't much when you have a few thousand to spare, but I decided not to stick around.  I had some other suits of armour, but for some reason the (R)eady command doesn't give you the option to put armour on when you're in the dungeon.  I'm not sure if this is a deliberate choice, an oversight, or a bug, but it's pretty annoying.  As soon as I left the dungeon I had to go to Paws and buy a new set of Reflect Armour.

Upon returning to the Lost King to report the completion of my quest (presumably with a handful of dead Gelatinous Cube as proof), I was rewarded with a red gem.  I was also told that I would need four more gems to complete my quest.  Four gems, four castles, and I suspect four monsters to hunt down...  Sounds simple enough.

I returned to the Dungeon of Montor, intending this time to find and kill a Carrion Creeper.  I decided to load up on spells along the way.  There are eleven spells in the game, but I haven't done much experimenting with them at the moment.  Four of them I wasn't able to buy: Destroy, Create, Blink, and Kill; those are restricted to Wizard characters.  (This pretty much guarantees that I'm going to play this game as a Wizard when it comes up again in my regular chronology.)  I bought ten each of the remaining spells, but the only one I've got much use out of so far is Ladder Up.  Casting it creates a ladder that leads to the dungeon level above, or to the wilderness if you're on level 1; it's a handy quick escape if you get into trouble, or find yourself lost.  I gather that spells can fail on occasion, but I've already juiced my Wisdom and Intelligence scores up to the point that my spells always work.

Back in Montor, I made my way down to level 5, skipping through levels 3 and 4 quickly so that I could avoid having my armour dissolved.  I had a bit of mapping trouble this time.  As I noted above, the dungeon doors are sometimes replaced by coffins, chests or force fields, and before I realised this I got completely turned around and lost.  I actually had to use a bunch of Ladder Up spells to escape and get my bearings; the monsters on the deeper levels can do in excess of 100 points of damage per hit, which really adds up.  I haven't died in this game so far, and I plan to keep it that way, so I made a quick retreat from the dungeon before going back a little wiser in terms of my mapping skills.

Defeating a Carrion Creeper

Despite getting lost I had managed to kill a Carrion Creeper, so I flew my air-car east to the second continent to see the king of Castle Rondorlin.  He rewarded me with a green gem, and another hint: I would need to use a time machine to beat the game.  I knew this already from hints acquired while drinking at the pub, but there's a good chance that a player might get this clue first.

Being rewarded with a green gem.

I guess I'm about halfway done with the game: I have two more dungeon quests to complete, and two more continents to explore, which I expect will take up the bulk of my remaining time with the game.  I'm still enjoying it, although the sluggishness of the dungeon loading is starting to wear on me.  I came into this game determined to map every square inch of it, but I'm wavering in that goal where the dungeons are concerned; there are an awful lot of them, I don't know how deep they go, and I don't even know if they're randomly generated or the same from game to game.  If anyone is aware of how Ultima's dungeons are generated I'd appreciate them letting me know, because I'd rather not expend any effort on further pointless mapping.

Before I finish up, I wanted to mention that I accidentally found the game's "attract mode", or demo, or whatever you want to call it.  Ultima uses two disks, one of which has the game and other of which has the information for your character.  If you boot from the second disk it launches the demo, which runs through a quick game intro showing off its various modes. I was hoping this might have given some extra backstory, but it doesn't.  It does have this radical skull, though.

This would make a great tattoo.

I suspect that this screen is used when a character dies, but because I'm so frikkin awesome at Ultima I haven't seen it yet.  I think I'll be able to keep it that way unless the monsters on the deeper dungeon levels get really tough, or I screw up when I go to space.  A "no deaths" run would make me feel pretty good though.


  1. I have nothing of importance to add, just wanted to let you know that I am enjoying reading about your travels through Ultima and appreciate your posts!

  2. Dungeons are randomly generated when you start a new character.

    There's no good reason to map them out.