Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dungeon Master: Level 3

The party fails to work together as a team.

Another level of Dungeon Master is behind me. As some of you predicted, it was a bit more difficult than Level 2, although images like the one above were mercifully rare. There were more "puzzles" on this level involving hidden switches, pressure plates, secret doors, and teleporters. The only one that really taxed me involved a door on the other side of a pit. The solution was to cast an "open" spell on the door, then throw an item into the darkness beyond it. The item landed on a pressure plate, closing the pit. It took me a while because I had overlooked the fact that I had a scroll with the "open" spell on it.

Long ago, in a woefully overlooked posting, I waxed about the magic systems in different games. My thesis was that while combat and such tend to be familiar from game to game, magic systems are characterized by several dimensions: how you acquire spells, the limits on the spells you can cast, how you regenerate your spell powers, how you access your spells, how the spells are divided by category or class, and so on. From Ultima V's reagent-and-syllable based system to Dungeons & Dragons scribe-and-memorize method to The Elder Scrolls' skill-and-mana model, every game seems to feature a slightly different spell system.

Dungeon Master is no exception, and its spell system is even more unusual than most. First, any character can cast any spell, provided he or she has the requisite spell power. The neat thing about the game is that you don't define your characters as "fighters" or "wizards" at the outset; rather, your characters become fighters or wizards (or both) depending on whether they cast spells. This confused me at first, but it's essentially just an early version of the skill-based system that The Elder Scrolls games use. In Morrowind, for instance, you can define your character as a "knight" at the beginning of the game, but that doesn't stop you from channeling your efforts into arcane or priestly spells and becoming an archmage by the end of the game. So one of my characters, Hawk, started out as a fighter, but eventually has developed basic priest levels by repeatedly mixing potions.

Nabi prepares to cast a spell to make a healing potion. Note the empty flask in his inventory.

To cast a spell, you have to string together a valid set of runes in a special section of the screen (where the cursor is in the image above). The first rune indicates the power of the spell (and thus how many magic points it requires); the rest specify the spell. Theoretically, I guess, you could cast every spell in the game right from the beginning, but the problem is, you don't know what they are. Only by finding scrolls with messages like "Cast VI BRO to cure poison" do you acquire this knowledge. So far, I've found light, healing (the spell requires a flask and creates a potion; I don't know if there's a non-potion healing spell, too), cure poison, poison, something that "weakens nonmaterial beings," stamina, and open door.

Syra hits a monster in the face with a DES VEN (poison).

Offensive spells are going to be a bit of a problem, I can tell. Because combat is in real time, and it's hard to remember what symbol corresponds with what rune, it takes me 10 seconds or so to string together each spell. That's too long to be standing around getting pummeled by monsters. The game lets you prepare spells ahead of time and "hold" them in the spell box, so the only offensive spells I've used are ones that I've put together before I approach the monsters. Then I let the spells fly and try to finish off the combat the old fashioned way.

You keep on trying, kid.

Each rune you add to the spell box (each syllable you speak, in the game's parlance) costs a little bit of mana. If you make a mistake, you can backspace and delete the syllable, but you don't get the mana back. I don't know for sure if you gain skill points by simply speaking the syllables or if you actually have to cast a valid spell. If the latter, I'm not sure if my ninja character, Leyla, will ever gain any spellcaster levels, as she doesn't have enough mana to cast even the most basic spells.

So that's the magic system. Let me cover some of the other miscellaneous things I discovered during my Level 3 gameplay:

  • I found a compass in a secret area on the level, well after I had completed most of the map in the wrong orientation. While it's nice to know where north is, the compass doesn't tell you your relative position in the map, so it's utility is somewhat limited. I suppose it will help a little on spinners, which I encountered on this level. I'm not a fan of spinners.

Fighting "debris-creatures"

  • Unless I'm missing something (I probably am), there's no way to know the names of monsters I'm fighting. It makes it hard to describe them. On this level, I faced mummies (that was obvious from the bandages), some kind of blue goblin-looking monsters, and these insidious creatures that looked like piles of debris from a distance. They were hard to kill but slow, so I could back off and toss all of my missile weapons at them.

Three goblinish things attack me from the right.

  • In the upper-right corner of the game screen, you see the formation of the characters. The color-coding on the little pictures corresponds with the colors in each character's status bar on the top. Being color-blind, I can't really tell the difference, but memorizing the positions of four characters isn't a big problem. Only the two characters in the front of the formation can attack with melee weapons, but I can swap who's in front and who's in back at any time. What I noticed tonight is that monsters adhere to this 4 x 4 formation, too. Check the screen shot above, and note that the monsters aren't using the left slots. This means that if Leyla tosses a missile weapon right now, it will sail harmlessly down the hallway.

  • The game is relatively slow to give up its treasures. Each level has only a few caches of treasure, and rarely do I find a weapon or armor that seems better than what I already own. I say "seems better," but it's actually hard to tell, as the game doesn't tell me the damage done by weapons or the protection afforded by armor. (Is a sabre better than a falchion? How does a leather jerkin compare to an Elven doublet?) This is one of only two major complaints I have about the game.

A nearly-missed switch to a secret door.

  • My second complaint has to do with secret doors. From what I can tell so far, there are two types: those activated by hidden switches, and those that I just walk through. The switch ones are cool. I have to watch carefully for changes in the pattern on walls and make sure I don't miss them, but this is a perfectly valid gameplay element. The ones that I walk through, on the other hand, are a pain in the ass. Since my characters take damage from just walking into walls, it's impractical to bump into every wall to see if there's a secret door behind. It would be too time consuming even if I didn't take any damage. But there's functionally no other way to find them. I found one on Level 3, but I'm guessing I probably missed others on this and previous levels.

Hawk comes back to us.

  • My rules about saving and reloading make the game a bit time-consuming. Every time a character dies (provided the whole party doesn't die), I have to haul his or bones to a resurrection altar, then return to the place of death to pick up his or her equipment. There was an altar on Level 1 and another on Level 3, so I hope they continue to keep coming every other level. Adhering to my rules does make combat a bit suspenseful, as I have a lot of incentive not to die.

  • Sometimes, I'm finding, the best thing to do is run from combat and regroup at a safe distance, drinking some healing potions, preparing some spells, and lining up missile weapons. This keeps me spatially aware more than most games: I need to know the best path of retreat.

Hawk needs to take a load off.

  • Encumbrance matters. The more weight my characters carry, the slower I move through the dungeon. This became a problem in one section of Level 3 in which I had to press a button that opened a secret door, then race down the corridor before the door closed. It was several frustrated attempts before I realized I needed to abandon some of my stuff so I could run faster.

  • I haven't figured out yet if monsters respawn. If they do, they do slowly.

  • I realized just tonight that there's no economy in this game. The characters don't have a cache of gold pieces, and there's no place to buy or sell weapons and armor. I have found a few stray coins, but these are solutions to puzzles, not something I can use at shops.

Three levels down...I actually have no idea how many there are to go.

In case it's not obvious from my coverage, Dungeon Master is a pretty awesome game. It's potential for ruining my life over the next couple of weeks is nontrivial. In my first post for this blog, I told the story of how I nearly gave up CRPGs for good:

My wife went out of town for a three-day business meeting, and I had planned to use the time to finish editing a book that I'd promised to the publisher a couple of weeks prior. The first morning, I worked maybe an hour on it before deciding to take a break for a "little" bit of Oblivion. 72 hours later, when my wife returned, I had done essentially nothing else.

Well, here we are, a year later, and my wife is out of town for another three-day meeting--for the same purpose as last year--and I have the same sort of major work project overdue. If you see another posting about Dungeon Master on this blog before Sunday night, I expect you all to yell at me.


  1. Don't worry, CRPG addict, if you make that post, I -assure- you that I will fling a nearly ENDLESS armada of insults. Insult so horrible that you will cry for the rest of your life, which, due to the fact you will not stop crying to eat and drink, will not be all that long.

    Only once before have I flung such a barrage of put-downs. From then on, I swore never again to use that kind of power. But, for you, I am willing to break that oath.

    Keep that in mind.

  2. Zink: Are you perhaps a Cruel Puppet from Beyond Zork?

    I was interested to hear about the magic system, and it immediately made me think of Ultima Underworld. One of the advantages of playing lots of Ultima before playing UU was the knowledge of the runes and magic system, so you could guess a few spells like IN MANI.

    No such luck when the game is the first in a series! Is there any clue for spells, armour and weapon stats in the manual?

  3. Re item stats, there is alas no way of knowing them without resorting to methods CRPAddict would consider cheating. This is an annoying flaw strangely shared by other RPG gems like Ultima 7. All you can do is try and see how each piece performs (obviously harder for armor) or make your guess based on its rarity and/or order of appearance.

    Re fake walls, there is a spell that helps with finding them (you didn't miss any so far, btw). Some of these secret passages lead to nice treasure, but never anything game-critical.

    PS: As a rule, monsters don't respawn.

    1. Ultima 7 had a book telling you those values :)

  4. Oh, and good luck for the following level, it should be considerably more challenging. So it might be we won't see that post of yours until tonight, but for all the wrong reasons. ;)

  5. Hi!

    I've just found your blog by searching for some information on The Bard's Tale which I'm about to replay... your work is amazing, congratulations. And I am so happy you are blogging about Dungeon Master right now, which was my first ever CRPG back then on Atari ST (I was about 8 or 9) and I really must have played it over more than a fifteen times, seriously.

    I've read through our three first posts and here are some hints/comments :

    The skill system is very flexible as you saw, and you have advantage to train everyone in everything. This will be very useful in harder levels as you can either a)switch melee characters in the middle of a battle if you cannot retreat like you do now b)fight towards the front and back/side at the same time when you get cornered by monsters from different directions. If everyone can also make healing potions or throw fireballs, you have that much more mana to use. If you plan to go through the expansion Chaos Strikes Back - which by the way is one of the most amazing non-linear dungeons designs I've ever saw, revolutionnary for the time and still to be beaten by modern RPGs in my view - this is mandatory, and you can import the characters from DM of course. So switch fighters around so everyone has their share, highlighting the name of someone makes him the party leader and he's throwing things around (ninja), so make a rotation, and have everyone cast spells. For caracthers with little starting mana, there are wands/amulets that boost mana which you can use to help them cast the first spells until they get a level. But with Leyla at 3 mana, there are some basic level 1 potions you can make. I always tried to keep everyone on an equal level in all four disciplines, it pays off.

    A note on training "abuse" : fighting skills only go up if you actually hit something, not slashing air. Ninja skills are abusably trainable but it's really tedious, especially at higher levels (it takes more and more training as you go up). Training magic takes mana, so you must sleep, which takes food, which is not unlimited except in one or two select locations in the dungeon where you have respawning monsters that give out food, and a water fountain near. These "training" locations are great and kind of must be used to level your guys enough for the later levels (I won't tell you how many there are, of course...). As they are really rare, it's probable meant for in design. Speaking of that, there are specific monster respawners here and there, but generally when you clear an area, it stays clear.

    Oh yes, I'd keep that "weakens nonmaterial beings" scroll around if I were you, just in case...

  6. Oh yes, another thing about mapping : stairs, holes, etc. match up perfectly from one level to the next so you can do some very precise mapping. If you fall through a hole, you are actually physically on the next level.

  7. Adding to what Georges said about magic training:
    Rira punzcvbaf jvgubhg nal znan pna genva zntr yriryf ol ercrngrqyl jne-pelvat ng n zbafgre (gubfr shatv, be 'fpernzref' nf gurl ner pbzzbayl xabja nf, jbex jryy).

  8. Oh lordy, I just had a "Questbusters™" flashback with that code.

  9. If I remember right, you can knock on the walls by left-clicking on them. Solid walls make a sound and illusion walls don't.

  10. if your dieing so much, even on level 3 you may not have good strategy. hit retreat a square, wait for them to advance, hit again, retreat etc.

    there are other strategies too. but really you should not be dieing so much at this early stage.

  11. Zink, answering a few comments doesn't qualify as "posting," right?

    I'll save more ranting on the item stats thing for my next posting, but suffice to say, no, Andy, I don't think the documentation that came with the game offered anything. Trudoldyr seems to confirm this below.

    Everyone else, thanks for all of the tips. Georges, I think I found one of the "training" locations you refer to on Level 4, where a bunch of screamers keep re-spawning; they offer food and then there's a water fountain just down the stairs. Trudodyr, thanks for the "war cry" tip. Problem is, you can only use this when you have nothing in your weapons slots. But I guess I could do it in a "training" location. rsaarelm, if that's true, it's going to save myself a lot of damage.

    Stu, I'm not dying that much. Once or twice on Level 3. I died more often so I could get screenshots of it than in any real scenario.

    Okay: I'm not going to cheat by looking this up, but I feel like I'm going to go crazy if I don't know the answer to this question, so someone just tell me: how many levels are there in this game?

  12. There's 14 levels, but three of them aren't full-size, grid-wise.







    NEED. I. GO. ON?

  14. According to HiddenX on RPGWatch, he says there is a spell to see through walls ... Makes it easier not to bump yourself against every single wall...


  15. Whew! I just finished blazing through this blog in under a week, thanks to a link from fellow chronogaming blog "chrontendo." I've enjoyed it quite a bit, both for the commentaries on famous games and enlightenment on not-famous games.

  16. I am on the west coast. Here it is about 7AM on Monday Morning. No new posts from CRPG addict. This gives us three possible scenarios:

    1. CRPG addict kept his word, played reasonably and got some "real" work done, and his wife is not going to come home and find him at his computer playing CRPGs like a zombie.

    2. CRPG addict kept his word about not posting, but still wasted all his time on Dungeon Master (and possibly a little Faery Tale Adventure: Book I )

    3. Zink broke CRPG Addict.

  17. I was truckin' along pretty good last week, with one or more postings per day, but the whole time I was thinking, "I'm spoiling them. Now they're going to EXPECT one every day."

    I did get some real work done, but I also played a lot more than I should have. I didn't post again because I hadn't assembled enough new material for a blog posting. Once you've described the basic gameplay in "Dungeon Master," there's not much else to talk about, since the dungeons don't have any NPCs or plot points or anything.

    I appreciate Zink's efforts--he really highlighted the aptness of naming a blunt instrument after him in "Beyond Zork"--but if anyone "broke" me, it's trudodyr.

  18. I understand you so well... I should be finishing my thesis due this week and not starting a brand new BT1 party, and not only that, but you actually made me badly want to go through DM yet another time.

    It's not fair.

    (At least the baby sleeps well at night.)

  19. I've got to ask (disclaimer: I haven't played very far in the game yet) there anywhere (in a manual or something maybe) that says what symbols match to what syllables? It's all very well to know that VI BRO cures poison or whatever. But that isn't enough information to actually cast it. Surely it isn't necessary to try a bunch of combinations to stumble on the right symbols for the spell, yes?

    On a related note, I wouldn't get very far with your rules, I don't think. Kudos for the discipline to play as far as is fun with minimal help. And great tracking of the results. Very entertaining for all of us.

  20. The game manual lists the symbols along with their names:

  21. Cross-training all your character in the various professions is highly recommended as each level gained gives some stats boosts. And btw, Leyla can learn to be a very capable spell-caster, but it will take a lot of patience casting light spells (waiting for her mana tore-charge for each word spoken) and mixing health potions. The day will come when you will want all 4 character to be able to start a battle with a barrage of fireballs, have the hp to endure the battle, and have the strength to wear decent armour.

  22. Thanks, John. That's actually very helpful advice.

    I see what you're saying about Leyla. I wasn't thinking that you could wait for the recharge in between syllables.

  23. Oh, Pladio, I forgot to respond to you: that spell sounds like something I'm supposed to find in-game at some point, so I don't think I'll click on the link. But thanks anyway.

  24. There's a very simple way to verify which walls are real and which aren't: click on them. It makes a knocking sounds if real, and the mouse cursor vanishes for a moment if it's illusionary. This feature wasn't present in the original Atari ST release, but all the later ones had it, including the PC version you seem to be running.

    Another option is to throw items at walls: they pass through fake ones.

    As for the spells, the beauty of the rune system is in that you can, and are encouraged to, find new spells on your own without waiting for the game to provide them to you. The manual lists the meanings of the runes, and combining them with some thought (or trial and error) you can find a whole bunch of useful ones much earlier than you find their scrolls. Fireballs make the purple worms so much less painful to deal with.

  25. Re: Illusionary walls - in most versions of DM you can "knock" on a wall with your mouse pointer to check if it's real or not. A real wall gives you a *THUMP* sound, an illusionary one doesn't. I think the earliest Atari ST release is the only one without this feature, and it was added to all ports (incl. DOS) and ST re-releases.

    Another HP-saving option is to throw items at walls, but that gets tedious quick. Raises ninja levels though.

  26. Part of the thrill of the game - and a big role-playing component the first play-through - is to experiment with the runes to discover what combinations make a legitimate spell and which result in "Nabi mumbles a meaningless spell." The added thrill is that you don't know what the spell *does* even if you hit on a working combination, because "Nabi needs more practice with this priest spell." Then, once you gain enough experience in the requisite class, you'll either get a spell result (and sometimes you'll have no idea what it does, like the ZO KATH RA spell [I carried one of those around with me for the longest time the first time I played, playfully chucking it at monsters at the start of every encounter] or the OH EW SAR one) or something like "Nabi needs a flash in hand for this potion." Aha! It's a *potion*! But you still won't know what it does, until you cast it and try it.

    Not having names for most everything in the game was actually a big appeal, for me. We (my friends and I, all riveted with this game) got to create our own names for everything. This later provided considerable amusement when reading the "ridiculous" names that others created for the same things.

    Here's our names for the monsters, by level:
    Level 1: Mummies, screamers (after the D&D creatures that also resemble toadstools that shriek)
    Level 2: Blue meanies, rock lobsters
    Level 3: purple worms, wasps, ghost (only one of these on this level)
    Level 4: Honeydews, Quetzalcoatls
    Level 5: Beholders, skeletons,
    Level 6 (tomb of the firestaff): golems
    Level 7: Ghoulie guys, skeletons, ghosts
    Level 8: Rats, jawas, rust monsters
    Level 9: scorpions, ghoulie guys, skeletons
    Level 10: slimes, ghoulie guys
    Level 11: Knights, spiders, tentacles
    Level 12: Fire elementals, monkey demons
    Level 13: The dragon (nicknamed "Gronk!")

    1. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to mess around more with spells. Since the first choice is just the power, there are only--what?--216 possible combinations?

  27. How do you know the characters are color coded being color blind? Don't all the colors look the same to you?

    1. There are a variety of types of color blindness. Very few people have monochromia, which is complete color blindness - usually color blind refers to seeing red as green, or green as red (functionally equivalent) and other colors normally.

    2. Specifically, I have protanopia and deuteranopia. Total color blindness is called achromatopsia, and thankfully I don't have that.

      Check out the pair of images on this page:

      The image on the left looks the same to me as images #2 and #3 on the right.

    3. In the case of DM, I can tell that they're DIFFERENT colors, but I can't tell you what colors they are.


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