Once again I got bored with grinding, and decided to take my chances by descending to the 4th dungeon level. I'd already been down there briefly, having taken the elevator and found two signs warning me to keep out. This time I took the stairs, with a healthy amount of trepidation. (This is the major appeal of playing games where you can't just reload a save: the consequences of every action are irreversible, so there are genuine nerves every time a new action is taken.)
This time I took the stairs down from level 3 to level 4. I was prepared for a lengthy mapping session, but this level didn't take long to explore at all: whereas the previous levels had used most of their 20 x 20 grid, level 4 had lots of unused space. The stairs down led to a long east-west tunnel. Exploring west led to a dead end, and an area with a loop of doorways. Exploring east led to another loop of doorways, where I found the stairs down to level 5. One of the doors leading to the stairs had some suspicious disk access after I passed through it; I checked a walkthrough map afterwards, and discovered that I wouldn't have been able to get through without the Bear Statue that I'd found on level 2.
|The very sparse map of level 4
Having explored the areas accessible via the stairs, I figured that the most interesting parts of the level must be accessed via the elevator. (On levels 2 and 3, the areas accessible by elevator were blocked from the rest of the dungeon, and had nothing interesting to find.) I tried the north passage first, past a sign reading "Testing Grounds Control Centre", mostly because that area of the map was more open than the south passsage. (As it turned out, I wouldn't have been able to explore south yet anyway.)
As soon as I stepped past the sign, an alarm sounded, and on my next move I was attacked by 7 3rd Level Ninjas. I made short work of them with spells, and continued exploring. There were two ways forward: one past a sign reading "Treasure Repository", and the other past a sign reading "Monster Allocation Center". The "Treasure Repository" door led into a room where I was attacked by a group of Werebears. I suspect that these enemies had more hit points than anything else I'd faced so far, but with the amount of offensive magic I had by this point I was able to blow them away with ease.
|I also fought a Dragon after going through the alarm square.
It died quick.
Exploring through the "Monster Allocation Center" door, I was immediately attacked by what I suspect is a unique encounter: two Lvl 7 Fighters, two High Priests, two Lvl 7 Mages, and a High Ninja. Again, I blasted the hell out of these guys. Now that my priests can cast LORTO (a wall of blades that deals 6-36 damage) and add their offensive power to that of my mages, I'm able to wipe out everything I encounter almost immediately.
|The toughest fight yet, I guess.
Past this room I entered a smaller room that was described as containing a desk covered in wizardly paraphernalia: scrying glasses, amulets of summoning, and other items all conveniently destroyed. Just as I entered a panel in the east wall was closing, and I was told that nothing I could do was able to open it. Curious as to who I'd just disturbed, I continued forward.
The next room had some answers, as I got the following lengthy message:
As the party enters the room, the door slams shut, glows bright orange, and disappears. A door appears to the right. A voice from no apparent direction can be heard. It says: "Congratulations, my loyal and worthy subjects. Today you have served me well and truly proven yourself worthy of the quest you are now to undertake. Several years ago, an amulet was stolen from the treasury by an evil wizard who is purported to be in the dungeon immediately below where you now stand. This amulet has powers which we are now in dire need of. It is your quest to find this amulet and retrieve it from this wizard. In recognition of your great deed today, I will give you a blue ribbon, which may be used to access the level transporter on this floor. Without it, the party would be unable to enter the room in which it lies.
Go now, and god speed in your quest!"
So that's my quest: an evil wizard has stolen the amulet of King Trebor, and I have to get it back. Am I to understand that the first four dungeon levels are under Trebor's control? And that I've just won the right to enter the levels below, controlled by this evil wizard? I guess it makes sense of the Proving Grounds name, although that would make Trebor the titular Mad Overlord, and potentially not someone for whom I should be retrieving magic amulets. (The evil wizard Werdna isn't named here, and I don't think he was referenced in the manual either. He was named on a "briefing" that apparently was included as a slip of paper with the game, but I'm curious to see when he first gets a name in the game itself.)
With the Blue Ribbon in my possession I was able to get through the door south of the elevator. This revealed another elevator, with buttons marked A through F. In any other game I'd mash that F button and try to take on Werdna right away, secure in the ability to reboot a save, but that's not an option here. As I've been doing so far, I'm taking this slowly and cautiously.
As I noted above, my current spell power is such that I've been blowing through the various monsters I've encountered. I've probably been over-cautious with the amount of grinding I've done, but as I noted above, choices in this game have consequences, and I don't relish starting over. I won't make a list of the monsters I've fought, because I've been killing them too quickly, so I have no idea what their special abilities are. I did get a little nervous when confronted by some Gas Dragons, but a MADALTO spell (a cold blast dealing 8-64 damage) put them away very quickly. My biggest setback came when I encountered a group of Shades, one of which drained my fighter Roland from level 12 down to level 11. That's a lot of experience to make up, but aside from the loss of a few hit points it didn't affect his combat ability in the slightest.
(Level drain comes directly from Dungeons & Dragons, where certain undead monsters will drain your character of an experience level with a melee hit. It's somewhat controversial these days: a lot of players hate it, and a lot of DMs refrain from using it. I like it as a tool for instilling genuine fear and hesitation in players, but it only works in certain styles of game; modern D&D kind of relies on the PCs all being of roughly the same level, so I can see why level drain gets left out. Plus it's super-deflating to have months of work go down the drain due to a single bad combat. But it fits well in multi-level dungeon crawls where the PCs control the danger level by choosing which dungeon level to explore, and that's the type of play that Wizardry is emulating.)
|Roland after having been level drained.
Reading back over my posts, I noticed that I've avoided writing about whether I'm enjoying the game or not. That hasn't been deliberate, but there are reasons for it: multiple lockdowns, my entire family life being turned upside down, moving house, and so on. I haven't been in a great headspace for this kind of game, and as such playing Wizardry has felt like a chore. I can recognise the quality behind it; it's absolutely one of the most well-crafted games of its era, and it's likely that under different circumstances I'd be loving it. At the moment, the prospect of another session doesn't really excite me, but I'll keep plugging away. I just hope that the first time my party gets wiped out won't discourage me from playing completely.