Monday, November 29, 2010

Dungeon Master: Runic Magic

Level 9 down. Five to go!

I'm on the road again this week, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. This is significant because I love Charleston. It is especially nice this time of year, given that I normally live in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, I left the rooftop bar an hour ago so I could return to my hotel room and make this posting. This is what my CRPG addiction--and, to an equal extent, all of you--has reduced me to. I am also relatively intoxicated, so forgive me if this posting is riddled with errors and poor logic until I can correct them tomorrow.

As some anonymous writer prophetically noted earlier today, Level 8 took me a long time, but more on that in a minute. I wanted to take some time to talk about Dungeon Master's unique use of runic magic.

I reflected this week that if I was truly playing these games in chronological order, having never been exposed to CPRGs before, I would be noticing a lot of "firsts" that I'm am currently missing. I don't think any other game has featured a magic system like this one, although Ultima Underworld--sort-of a spiritual sequel to Dungeon Master--would famously adapt it. There are even elements of it in Ultima V (not yet played), in which each spell is a combination of syllables.

The spell system in Dungeon Master is a system of 24 glyphs in four different "tiers." I showed these in the first posting for the game, but I'll show them again here:

Each spell begins with a specification of the spell's power, represented by the first "tier." Some of the more basic spells, like "magic torch," require only one further tier, while others, like "lightning bolt," progress through all four. The power level determines the strength of the spell and the number of spell points that each glyph requires.

A fireball launched at a death rat.

You cast spells by queuing the glyphs in the spell section of the screen and then clicking the runes to actually cast them. The neat thing is that you can queue a certain spell long before actually casting it, so all four characters, for instance, can line up "fireball" spells and then wait for an appropriate enemy. Of course, if I decide I want to make some potions before an appropriate enemy comes along, I lose the spell points I invested in the "fireball" spell. Such is the gamble you take.

Syra lines up a fireball spell.

The difficulty associated with remembering each spell's glyph sequence and the time it takes to click on them make it difficult to actually cast them in combat. I've discovered that "fireball" is a relatively easy one, though, if I cast it at the EE potency level, since the glyphs EE, FUL, and IR, all occupy the same position in the sequence of glyphs. Casting it is four quick clicks.

Discovering "fireball" was a major turning point. "Fireball" is really the major workhorse spell of any CRPG. I sense a "special topics" posting coming up soon.

The game reveals its spells slowly, through scrolls that you find in different parts of the dungeon. Levels 6-9 really exploded the number of spells that I have available. I finally find OH EW RA (magic vision; sees through walls), which many of you have been hinting at for days, although I found it somewhat overwhelming and short-lived. FUL IR (fireball) and OH KATH RAH (lightning bolt) were great additions, since before them my only good offensive spells were DES VEN (poison) and OH VEN (poison cloud). I found FUL BRO NETA (fire shield) early on, but I forgot about its existence at a crucial point (see below). There are a whole host of spells that create potions to boost my stats, although I've yet to really use them. Plain old FUL (magic torch) remains a constant companion; I found another called OH IR RA (light), but I'm not sure how it differs. One, DES IR SAR (darkness), I've found no use for at all.

The glyphs aren't meaningless, either. VI is a component of all healing spells, FUL shows up in fire-based spells, and EW seems to have to do with nonmaterial things, like DES EW (weaknes nonmaterial beings) and OH EW RA (sees thorugh material things).

I realized belatedly that nothing was stopping me from simply trying different glyph combos on my own, without waiting for the scrolls. But must of my attempts result in an error that I've "mumbled a meaningless spell," so I suppose I'm better off waiting for the scrolls.

Anything that results in a potion is a priest spell and everything else is a wizard spell. Spell points, which increase as I gain priest and wizard levels, regenerate fairly quickly. I've discovered that it's a bit of a waste to walk around with a full spell point reserve; even burning these casting needless extra "magic torch" spells or mixing unneeded healing potions helps me gain levels in those classes.

Anyway, it's a unique magic system. It combines the "spell memorization" theme of Dungeons & Dragons games with the "runic" system of Ultima Underworld and the "syllable" system of Ultima V and the "spell points" system of The Bard's Tale while, of course, pre-dating most of these games.

A magic barrier precluded progress on Level 7.

So. Back to the gameplay. Since my last update, I have conquered Levels 8 and 9. Level 7 I had to bypass temporarily because I was missing a key to a locked door. A sign saying "the key to the passage lies in hidden deep" kept me from panicking and worrying that I'd overlooked it.

Ghosts assailed me on Level 8. The only weapon that could defeat them was the vorpal blades I found on Level 6.

Level 8 was mostly a vast cavern composed of ghosts that fell easily to my vorpal blades and thieves, which were the most annoying CRPG monsters I've ever faced.

Gangly, larcenous bastards.

They ran up behind me, making a chortling sound, and snatched anything I was carrying out of my hands. I had to chase them across the dungeon, swiping at them as soon as I got into range, to get my stuff back. Level 8 also featured random fireballs that kept hitting me out of nowhere. I never did figure out what was going on with those, although they eventually stopped for some reason.

The cavernous Level 8.

Level 9 was more of a traditional "maze," with lots of dead ends and turns. There were hardly any puzzles on this one, although it featured some tough critters. Again, since the game doesn't name the monsters for me, I call them "jawas," "weird crawly things," and "death rats." The rats were the toughest, swarming me two or three at a time.

A jawa, sans the sandcrawler.

A few stray observations:

  • In the last posting, I showed an example of a button that was hard to see. These two levels featured even-harder-to-see buttons on certain walls. I think I got most of the secret doors because there isn't much blank space on my maps, but I can't be sure.

This game does not reward myopic players.

  • Level 9 had an area full of traps, where every square I stepped on tripped an unavoidable trap and launched a fireball from the other end of the room. I toughed my way through it, taking copious damage and healing my characters with potions, before I realized the "fire shield" spell would probably come in handy.

Pelted with trap fireballs.
  • There was one puzzle in which I had to find something "lighter than a feather" and stick it in an alcove. A rote process of trying all of my items determined that the solution was chunk of "corbomite." If there was anything in the game that taught me about corbomite's unusual weight properties, I missed it, but the mineral itself is a reference to Star Trek.
  • There are more stairs on these lower levels than on the upper ones. Some staircases go to unexplored parts of upper and lower levels, but there also seems to be a central staircase starting on Level 6 that gives you quick access through the levels. Getting to it on each level involves finding a "skeleton key" and using it to open a secret door (helpfully distinguished by a skeleton head).

  • The game makes a big deal about your characters needing to eat and drink, but frankly I've found nothing but copious amounts of food and water. I've been lugging around extra food (and chests to carry it) since Level 1, and I'm thinking about just dumping the chests in one of the central staircase levels so I don't have to lug around the weight. Unless something else happens late in the game, it doesn't look like I'll have any trouble returning to these storage locations. Honestly, if you're going to require characters to eat and drink, at least make it a little bit of a challenge.

My characters remain quite sated.
  • I'm showing you these maps because they take a long time to make and, dammit, someone is going to see them.

There are five levels left to the game, I think, so I'll press on. Although this one is taking a while, it is clearly a seminal game in the development of CRPGs, and I'm grateful I was exposed to it.


  1. The apparent non-use of Darkness reminds me of NWN, wherein even a friendly casting of it was more likely to screw you over than anyone else, since your NPC companions could effectively target things in the zone, whereas you'd stumble around until some jerk with knockdown stunlocked you.

  2. On the "random" fireballs : if you look at your map, you'll see how there's a very clever system of 90 degrees spinning blue fields that direct the fireballs from the launcher in the upper left corner all through the level. By turing the first field in the chain off, you removed the link and stopped them.

    The light spell maybe lasts a little longer than magic torch (not sure), but it's great for training wizards as it's hard to cast at high levels.

    Corbomite was the only item in your inventory weighting 0.0kg when examining it.

    On food : you should totally dump your stuff in the skeleton way. It's true they really didn't exploit the ressource management potential in Dungeon Master, there's well enough food for a dozen adventuring parties out there without even counting monster generators. This aspect was fixed in Chaos Strikes Back : water is EXTREMELY scarce, you only have one waterskin for the party for a good part of the game (depending in which order you play it, it's nonlinear), food is rare, you only have maybe two flasks for potions if you're lucky/talented to get them...

    BTW, what to you think of the sound of empty glass flasks thrown against a wall of rock? These things were made solid, it's not like today when everything is cheap... Poor wall...

  3. You're making great progres, thanks for posting! I figure you could finish the game in about 2-3 more blog entries.

  4. I for one, enjoy seeing the maps. Gives us a good idea of the size of the world that you're battling thruogh =D

  5. I love the maps, too. Reminds me of rainy afternoon some 20 years ago when I would make up dungeons on graph paper. :)

  6. This is a cool idea. But I don't think you'll be done for another 15 years!

  7. Georges, thanks for the confirmation about using the staircase to store food; it really took the load off. I also appreciate the clarification on those fireballs and the corbomite; I didn't even think to check the weight!

    The flasks: yes. "Whoosh--thud." They were infused with lead, clearly.

  8. Somewhat belatedly, yes, but given the Star Trek reference, it's obvious why corbomite doesn't weigh anything: it doesn't exist. :V

  9. Hi there, thoroughly enjoying your blog so far, having crawled through it this far in a few days.

    Just a note of interest... This magic system seems to have a legacy in Skyrim, which I'm playing as we speak. The dragon shouts can be modified by finding new syllables, though you don't have as much control over which syllables you use. Still, it's interesting that over 20 years later, this system has descendants in massive budget, chart-topping CRPGs...

  10. It seems likely to me that both systems were influenced by historical runes and runic lore, rather than Dungeon Master having a direct effect on Skyrim, but you could be right. Either way, it's an interesting system in both games.

  11. There are a couple other games that seem to have taken the runic approach to magic. Dungeon Magic and Magician both for the NES had you enter in runes to cast magic. Magician actually stored the spells, so you didn't have to enter them again if you got it correct. Entering an unknown spell (not programmed) and casting it resulted in a chance to fizzle, kill you, or return you to perfect health.

    Arx Fatalis is the only other game that comes to mind that used runes for magic. To cast, you'd draw the rune out with the mouse instead of just selecting it.

  12. Another game that used a similar runic (they're called talismans or something like that in the game) magic system is Revenant, a Diablo type action RPG game from the late 90s.

  13. Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube also used a runic system, though it was limited by the need to find both the appropriate runes and larger "spell circles" that let you stack the 'power' runes to increase, well, power. Since the game was a linear sequence of "Chapters", you were pretty much stuck with what you had at the time - if you hadn't found the Ulyaoth rune, no sanity recovery for you. It did allow early discovery and use of a spell if you had the appropriate runes.

  14. Slowly progressing through the game as I read your posts. For some reason level 9 took me forever to map, like all morning today. Still enjoying the game though!

    By the way, since you're mentioning the runic magic system here: a very similar magic system is featured in Heimdall 2 (I don't know about the first game), the symbols are called runes as well and the combinations found in scrolls and books. There is a limit of 4 runes per spell and you can record them to cast at a later time. In fact, when I started playing Dungeon Master earlier this year it immediately reminded me of Heimdall 2, even though of course the latter was released 5 years later.

  15. Worth a mention in the runic magic discussion is a Nintendo DS game called LostMagic. In it, you actually drew the runes on the screen with the stylus (in real time). Drawing the rune more accurately made the spell more powerful! Here's a trailer video that gives a taste:

    (From another commenter working through the blog in order.)

  16. One of my favourite games involving runic magic is Amulets and Armor. Casting spells requires both possession of the proper rune stones and knowing the sequence in which to invoke them.

    Handily they can be invoked rapidly with the number pad, making using spells in combat much easier than in Dungeon Master.

  17. Anvil of Dawn used runes drawing for spells too. And : Thanks for this blog. Enjoying it hugely!

    1. In Anvil of Dawn you don't have to combine runes to cast spells. The runes there are just symbols for the spells and you don't even have to draw them, but just to wait until your char has drawn them.
      The spell system in DM is much more sophisticated.


      Thats odd about AoD. Its technically not a good game - I mean the gameplay is repetitive, uninspired, unbalanced - but nevertheless... somehow I love it - Its maybe just because of the atmosphere it creates with its nice graphics and music

      (Still DM is my fav (dm-like)dungeon crawler)

    2. Definitely the atmosphere. I've never gotten through AoD yet myself but I keep coming back to it. It succeeds on a rare level of invoking a sense of mystery and a cohesive world that draws you in.


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