Saturday, January 30, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Conquering the Kingdom

The party slowly transitions to managing an empire.

As I've reported before, the 2014-2015 Winter from Hell in the Northeast caused so much water damage to my house that Irene and I had to move out while the entire place was gutted and reconstructed. We had to move all our stuff into temporary storage--and "temporary" turned into "permanent" last month when we decided it would be less effort to just sell the damned house than to keep trying to fix it. We are now living a semi-nomadic existence, having rented an oceanfront place for the winter. Who knows what will happen in the spring.

As much as I hated hauling all my stuff from my house to storage, then some of it to our first rental place, and then again to our second rental place, I think I'd actually rather do it again than have to set up another computer. I bought a Dell Precision 17 laptop on December 15 and figured it would take a couple of days to port over my programs and files from my old computer. It turns out I wasn't even finished with the process when I had to head back on the road a month later. Even now, I keep finding things that I've forgotten: DOSBox requires a special video codec, I forgot to deauthorize my copy of ArcGIS Spatial Analyst on my old computer, I need to re-map the default image capture location in about 16 emulators, and so on.

In case you find my story boring, here's a shot of the party taking on a dragon.
   
A few days ago, I was worried I'd have to repeat a lot of these efforts when, while unwisely trying to get some work done on a tiny table in a hotel bar, I spilled a Moscow Mule across my new laptop's keyboard. How it happened is complicated. It basically goes that I accidentally knocked my iPhone off the table, and in my panic to interrupt its fall with my left hand, I forgot I was holding a full copper mug in my right. Two-thirds of the cocktail poured smack in the middle of the keyboard and began seeping into the interior. Two seconds later, the screen froze, displayed something that I missed because I was desperately searching for a napkin, and went black.

Let's fast forward to the good news: despite all the liquid that entered (or could have entered) the computer's innards, it turns out I just fried a single RAM chip located beneath the keyboard. (I could have been using the laptop for the last week if I'd known that and just taken it out.) Thus, I am saved from having to reinstall 78 programs and transfer 700 GB worth of files for the second time in a month. However, the whole episode screwed up my momentum on Disciples of Steel and ensured that when I was finally able to blog about the game, it would no longer be fresh in my memory.

In this session, I started taking over kingdoms. Now I give the quests!
   
I am currently hoping--desperately hoping--that the final act of the game doesn't turn out to be really stupid, because right now, I love it. I've already gone into detail about the tactical combat, the character development, the equipment system, and spells, all of which feature the types of statistical logistics that make up my kind of RPG. I equally enjoy the game's approach to plot and storytelling: open-world, competing factions, many quests of varying length and difficulty. It's lasted too long for this blog--two months since I played another 1991 game--but not too long for its content.

In some ways, it reminds me a lot of Might & Magic VI and VII. The mechanics are entirely different, but both games take place on a continent of reasonably complex politics, both involve uniting multiple regional lords to a common cause, and both are perfectly happy to let you explore dungeons and find quest items before you technically get the quests. You have to be careful about this. I lost a few hours of progress because I accidentally sold a corpse that I needed to solve a quest, before I discovered that it was even a quest item. I've learned to keep anything that sounds unique; fortunately, the game gives you a vault just for that purpose.

I could recount all the different quests done for the different lords since the last post, but such a litany would be pretty boring to read even if it was fun to play. Suffice to say that I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach the end of a questline when suddenly I did. Queen Valencia of Demata had asked me to explore the Lost City of Terine to retrieve the Cross of Thydra. (A quest I had also received from the king of Farnus. Farnus took the cross permanently but the queen didn't, meaning I had to turn in the quest to Demata first and Farnus second. I had to learn this lesson the hard way and reload.) The temple was huge, and I never actually completed it because there was some business with a hermit who wanted a "magic word" that I couldn't identify. Without it, he wouldn't let me pass, and for role-playing reasons I didn't want to just kill him.

This wasn't it.
  
But whatever I missed in that section, at least I found the cross. When I returned it, she then wanted the corrupted corpse of her late father, who I had slain as a lich. Thankfully, I had kept it. Her next quest had me raid a bandit camp for a stolen shield, and the one after that was to retrieve a "Gru Root" from nearby swamps to cure a case of poison.

I don't mind fetch-and-carry quests when they're interspersed with more complex ones.
 
At this point, I expected yet another quest, but suddenly Valencia said it was time for her to marry, pointed at Octavianus, my blacksmith, and announced that she'd chosen him. In seconds, the ceremony was completed, and the game informed me that "now the Disciples of Steel rule this land."
   
Good luck, Octavianus. She looks like she's into some weird stuff.
  
Rulership opened a whole new set of game dynamics that I have not yet begun to master: setting taxation rates, recruiting and equipping armies, and garrisoning and defending cities. It turns out that raising armies is expensive, and I had long ago stopped worrying about the game's economy except to make enough money to buy mushrooms. I'm now back to loading up on looted equipment after combat and selling it.

Recruiting an army is expensive.
  
Later, I ended three more questlines: Teal's, Farnus's, and Tobruk's. Teal's took me the longest. Wiping out the thieves' guild took almost 8 hours by itself. The dungeon was huge, had multiple secret doors, and featured dozens of hard combats, each capable of wiping out stocks of hundreds of mushrooms. But the rest of the Pirate King's quests were simple: slay the Death Knight wandering around the island ("Power Word: Stun" took care of him, like it does all single enemies) and grab some Mangi Root from a swamp to cure a plague.

The party surrounds and pummels the frozen Death Knight.

When I brought back the plague cure, Rathbone said it was too late for him and prompty died after designating my party as his heirs. I got the same kingdom-ruling options that I had received in Demata, but I didn't do anything but set a small tax rate of 5%. Hopefully, that won't be enough to make the populace revolt.

Rathbone wills me his kingdom before his death.

After I returned the cross, King Krassus of Farnus had me clear out an outpost of Rathadon spies, then destroy a Rathadon fortress north of Tobruk. When I returned from the ninth quest, he told me that his son and heir had been killed to an evil warrior named Jax, and he asked me to kill him. I had to wander around a forest for a while before Jax attacked, but once he did, the battle wasn't very difficult. After I returned Jax's body, Farnus turned over his kingdom.


I don't remember why I focused on the dwarves of Tobruk next, but the dwarf king had me explore some mines where a bunch of dwarves had been turned to stone by a demon (a quest that also has an echo in Might & Magic VII--did the New World developers play this game?), kill the demon, find some magic mushrooms to heal the dwarves, and explore a dungeon accessible from within the city to kill a cross between a beholder and the Thing. I also had to return a broken blade and...I don't know...something else. There were like three quests in a row that I solved just by completing a single dungeon.

"But he stops when he realizes you're not laughing, too. You stare at each other in silence for a few seconds. It's awkward, really."

I expected Firbin Redforge's questline to end with some excuse for my taking over his city, just as with the others, but it didn't. He simply said that he'd be "at my side" when the final battles started with Rathadon. This is the first time that it's been clear that Rathadon will be the ultimate enemy, making me wonder what happens if I a) finish Rathadon's questline; or b) assassinate the leader of Rathadon before the endgame starts.

  
Equipment advancement has been pretty steady, with +5 and +10 items giving way to +25 and +30. A small number of items have improved my skills by 10 or 20 points. Towards the end of this session, I started finding potions that raised my attributes. It took some thinking to determine how best to allocate them. In some games, I might try to raise the attributes of my lowest characters, but in this game I think it makes more sense to augment existing strengths than to take the edge off weaknesses.

My party leader's backpack has some decent stuff.
   
Lots of miscellaneous notes:

  • I talked last time about magic, but it didn't occur to me to mention one of the major differences from the Gold Box titles: the lack of buffing spells, and in particular the lack of buffing spells that you can cast before combat. There are a couple of them related to protection and speed, but you already have to be in combat to cast them.
  • "Power Word: Stun" is so useful that I ended up giving every character 100 points in "Power" so they can cast illusion magic. That's enough to freeze two foes for two or three rounds each. If I'm luck with initiative, I can freeze up to a dozen enemies in the first round of combat--which is good because I'm routinely fighting groups of 30 or more foes these days.

The party is swarmed by thieves in the thieves' guild.
 
  • The option to parley and then "be amicable" has never once worked.
  • I've invested over 200 points in my ranger's "track" skill, and I have no idea what it does.
  • In one dungeon, I found a "divining rod," but I'm not sure what its use is, or even what the message is telling me when I try to use it.


  • Similarly, the "search" command has never once turned up anything that I haven't found just walking around.
  • Potions of healing heal 100% of damage, but they're very rare.
  • The priest's "Teleport" spell turns out to be pretty useful, instantly whisking you up to 62 squares in any direction on the overland map. That's enough to get to the islands without having to sail a ship.

After completing a quest, Fanatica teleports the party back to town.
  
  • I don't think I've covered it before, but the game has amusing descriptions when you walk past random buildings in the cities.
      
  
  • I still think menu towns would have been a better approach, but I only recently discovered that you can instantly (L)eave any city that you're in.
  • Here are a couple of interesting monster portraits from various dungeons:

 
 
The programmer failed to communicate with the graphic artist on this one.

  • And I want to again express my appreciation for the textual dungeon descriptions which are both more frequent than those in the Gold Box games:


The game remains hard. Even with many of my skills approaching 300, I occasionally encounter foes so difficult that I die in the first round (especially if they surprise me). But I enjoy the challenge, and even having passed 60 hours, I haven't gotten sick of the combat. I keep catching myself having the kind of fun I had when I was a kid, imagining the characters working as a team and shouting orders and encouragement to each other: "Didymus, see if you can stun the one in the back!"; "I'll take the ogre!"; "Nialphe, fireball that corner of the room!"
The ending must be coming up soon, and I'm actually quite apprehensive about it. I assume it will involve wealth and kingdoms and armies, but I don't know how many resources I'll need. I don't know if I need to finish every questline to win the game, and I don't know exactly when I'll run out of time. Yet, somehow this uncertainty doesn't bother me, and even the prospect of having to play it again (later in my 1991 list, of course), now that I know what I'm doing in the early acts, fills me with more excitement than dread.

I don't want to give the impression that the game is perfect. Above, I covered several things that just don't work. There is also a notable lack of role-playing choices, including dialogue options and encounter options. But unless it completely tanks in its final moments, I can't imagine that Disciples of Steel won't GIMLET in the top five.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tyrann: Won! (with Final Rating)

You know it's the endgame text because it has lots of exclamation points.
   
Tyrann
Norsoft (developer); No Man's Land (publisher)
Released 1984 for Tangerine Oric, Thomson MO5, and Amstrad CPC (some of these platforms may have seen a 1985 release instead)
Date Started: 4 January 2016
Date Ended: 18 January 2016
Total Hours: 19
Reload Count: >100
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 73/206 (35%)
       
Well. Tyrann certainly had some surprises in store before the end. I'm still not sure it's a good game, but it at least became a much more interesting game.

Everything I've been posting so far turned out to be the first half of the game. For nine dungeon levels, the party fights monsters, earns gold, buys equipment, and levels up. Once the average character level hits 11--and, as in the last post--the player saves and reloads the game--something interesting happens: the game tells you that you can now explore the tenth level. It gives you the choice as to whether to go to this level, which transfers the saved game to an entirely different program, or keep exploring the first nine.


I had barely touched Level 8 when I got this message and hadn't explored Level 9 at all. It's possible that the rest of my game would have been easier if I'd kept exploring a bit, leveling up, increasing my stats, and paying a couple more visits to the mysterious WAKAHN'YORL to boost my characters' attributes. But I wasn't eager to prolong the game, so I accepted the offer. The game had me create a new save file which then transferred to the new program.
A message accompanied the transition. I do my best to translate, trying to adhere more to the spirit than the letter (corrections welcome):
   
Courageous men! You who have endured a phase of relentless combats and paid the price of blood and injuries: I salute you!

Once upon a time, Queen TYRANN was condemned. Her sin was an inability to choose between two princes of the winds, both greedy for wealth and power. Now, they are her guardians. TYRANN rests in a crystal sarcophagus in the depths of a maze, protected by strange spells. Woe to those who enter this temple without having what they need! Honor and glory to the brave chosen ones! Go now, and peace be with you! -- WAKHAHN'YORL
    
A little exposition here that you'd normally find in the manual. This is the first time that the title of the game has been explained! That was a rather unfortunate name choice on her parents' part. I can almost hear them telling their friends, "'Tyrann' if it's a girl, and 'Despot' if it's a boy."
   
Note that although the game is written in French, the text lacks accent marks.
   
I figured I was almost done at this point--how long could it take to complete a single level? Well, it turns out it took almost as long as it did to complete the previous nine. Although it looks similar, Tyrann becomes a fundamentally different game on the last level, with a host of new rules that you have to learn by trial and error:
     
  • Your inventory disappears in the transition, although you retain the armor class of whatever you were wearing. Armor doesn't exist on the final level, so your AC never improves after the transition.
  • All characters move to Level 10 but retain their attributes. There are no experience points or leveling on the final level.
  • Some of the spells disppear, including the most powerful, like KERR ("Death"), YEEI ("Lightning Bolt"), and MOKHAR ("Friends"). Some of the spells that are retained work differently. Mysterious new spells appear, but your spellbook no longer gives you clues as to what they do.
  • Each spellcaster has exactly 2 castings for each spell.
  • There's no "town level." Instead, you have a camp. You lose all equipment every time you enter the camp, but it resets your spell slots.
  • A host of confusing new inventory items appear (more on this below).
  • You can no longer transfer items or gold between characters.
  • There are a couple of ways to get equipment: you can cast a GOLAM spell (one of the new ones), which scatters a variety of items among the party members, though somewhat randomly; there are shops scattered throughout the dungeon where you can trade gold or even hit points for items; and you find some items on slain creatures.
  • There is no longer an "attack" command in combat; instead you (U)se a weapon from your inventory.
  • Gold and items are now awarded to the character who makes the kill, not distributed among all party members.
       
Finally, a new host of monsters appear, sounding terrifyingly hard: black dragons, evil gods, colossi, titans, white knights, green giants, and the deadly "strange animals" (drôle d'animal). In truth, they aren't as bad as they sound, and I was able to cleave through them the same way I dealt with enemies on the previous levels: OKOY ("Paralyze") for the corporeal creatures and ZINAK ("Turn Undead") for the non-corporeal ones. The occasional magic-immune creature fell to my weapons.
   
Oh, I forgot to mention Cthulhu.
    
The harder part of the level was figuring out the logistics and how to make it to the endgame. First, you have to figure out what the inventory items do. There are a bunch of weapons whose use is obvious: arc (bow), epee anti-spirits (a sword that only strikes incorporeal creatures), lance, hache de borreau (executioner's axe), poingard (dagger), and so forth. There are also a bunch of items that duplicate spells or otherwise have some magical effect in combat. These include the crosse (staff), which damages all evil creatures, and the baton magique (magic wand).
   
Chestre decides what item to use in a battle against a demon, a horror, a living vine, and an evil god.
    
There's a weird potion-crafting component that I didn't really get to work. One of the items you can find is a marmite (cooking pot), and you're supposed to use it with several ingredients--os (bone), mygale (tarantula), soufre (sulfur), and so on--to make both offensive and defensive potions. The problems is that, since you can't transfer items between characters, it's hard to get both the cooking pot and the ingredients into the hands of the same character at the same time. In any event, it's hardly necessary to win the game.
   
Parchemin stops being an offensive object and instead restores spell levels to the mage; a tablette gravee does the same thing for the druid. If you're willing to do a little save-state-scumming, you can get yourself into the following rhythm: Once your spells run out, use the engraved table to restore your druid's spells. Ensure that at least one of these spells is a GOLAM. Cast the GOLAM to re-seed equipment among your party members. Ensure that during this process, the druid gets at least one engraved tablet. Back-and-forth between GOLAM and the tablet, you can keep both your inventory and spells at capacity.
       
A casting of GOLAM scatters new items among my party members.
   
The new spells also take some experimentation. GOHO whisks you back to camp if you get stuck (at the cost of all your inventory).  LIRAM is a mass-damage spell. MADEK creates a kind of "radar" that warns you of encounters ahead (though since you can't avoid most of them, the warning has questionable utility). KALAM deciphers runes (more on that below). XOLUK now heals the entire party to maximum rather than just one character. I was never able to figure out exactly what SEGOY did, nor its related object, the statuette. It said something about creating a circle on the ground and begging the gods for favor, but I never saw any difference.

I mapped the final level myself, partly because it felt less like cheating, and partly because the one extracted from the Oric tapes is inaccurate (perhaps the Oric version is different). The level consists of 23 x 23 used squares, but with a three-square ring of one-square rooms around the edges (those aren't reflected in the map below). It wraps around on itself, making navigation difficult without frequent uses of the KADEO spell to get your bearings. You have to approach many of the sections from the "outside."
   
My map of the final level.
    
The map does some weird stuff with its doors that's hard to explain. In general, the game uses a "worm tunnel" approach to its mapping, without shared walls between the passages. Passing through doors jumps you forward two squares so you never actually stand in the doorway. But by allowing you to approach doorway squares from multiple angles, and by putting multiple doorways adjacent to each other, the game occasionally puts you in the middle of a doorway or even the space between walls--in the latter case, moving out of the space and into an adjacent room or passageway almost always closes the wall behind you. It was tough to map.

The dungeon is scattered with runes that you need the KALAM spell to decipher. They give you hints about how to accomplish the endgame. One of them says that Queen Tyrann is "the source of all evil," which puts a different spin on the backstory, and others said that I'd need the Sceptre of Peace to complete the game. 
    
Translating some runes with the "KALAM" spell.
   
I don't know exactly what sequence of events brought me to the endgame. There are two alcoves in the dungeon that you need a thief with a rossignol to open. Perhaps some French-speaking reader can explain how rossignol can mean both "nightingale" and "skeleton key" (is there a metaphor at work?). Each imparts a hint--one told me about using KALAM to decipher the runes--but I don't know if they're actually necessary to win.

In the center of the dungeon, you come across the Guardian of the North and the Guardian of the West in their respective niches. They ask for money, but both times they told me I didn't have enough, and I had to engage in combat instead. Only your lead character can fight in the combat. No matter what weapon I used, I did 21 points of damage each round (if I hit) and they did 11 points of damage each round (if they hit), so it was just a matter of luck and whose hit points ran out first. I won both combats with just a few hit points to spare.
   
Encountering one of the guardians.
      
I'm not sure if it's necessary to defeat both, as only the Guardian of the West teleports you to a corridor where you find the Sceptre of Peace. Only my thief could take it--it says the light is too bright for everyone else--but I don't know if that's an artifact of opening one of the alcoves or just a class-specific requirement.

To get to the final area, you have to pass through a square that teleports you back if you're carrying any weapons. You have to drop them all--as well as anything else that does damage, like barrels of powder--before it will let you go forward. There are two fixed combats in between this point and Tyrann, and you have to face both without any melee weapons, thus putting all the burden on your spellcasters and their magic items. (If you cast GOLAM after passing this point and re-equip your fighters, they die the moment they use a weapon in combat, and you lose the Sceptre of Peace.) This is particularly difficult because there aren't many spells that do damage to creatures (stunning or sleeping them hardly does any good if you can't then damage them) and some creatures are immune to magic entirely. Thus, it boils down to the random composition of the enemy parties that you encounter. Again, a little save-state-scumming helps if you don't want to have to flee and return multiple times.

Eventually, I got a favorable combination, defeated the monsters with a combination of spells and magic wands, and moved forward to the endgame square. This was the message. Exeter, my thief, is named in the text because he was carrying the Sceptre of Peace:

Exeter advances, uncomfortably, to the crystal sarcophagus in which lies Tyrann. The tormented spirit watches as he goes forward, step by step. He places the sceptre on the pedestal. The whole party waits...

It would take too long to tell you the end of this story, because it lasts forever...

Exeter marries Tyrann and rules at her side in peace. His five companions become uncontested masters of their castles, and a rumor circulates that they hope to begin another adventure! Who knows? Perhaps this fantastic saga will continue!
    
In storytelling quality, this is one step up from, "There was a brave knight....yada yada yada....they lived happily ever after." But whatever. It's over. I got the last message at the top of the screen, congratulating my "famous party" and inviting me to play the sequel, Le Fer d'Amnukor ("The Fire of Amunkor").

Did I miss something here? How did we go from rescuing her to marrying her?
    
Switching to an entirely different mechanic for the endgame is a rare trope, but we've seen it before in a few games, including Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign and Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure and recently in The Standing Stones. I generally think it's a bad idea, but in this case the ending half was a lot more interesting than the beginning half. I still didn't really like it--it abandoned too many traditional RPG mechanics, like character development--but it wasn't boring.

In a GIMLET, I give Tyrann:
      
  • 1 point for the game world. The story makes very little sense and never really engages the player.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. For the first half of the game, leveling is reasonably rapid and imparts tangible benefits. Arguably the best part of the game.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. I reluctantly give this to the rare appearances of WAKHAN'YORL in the dungeon segment.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes--a relatively standard selection of fantasy monsters with predictable strengths and weaknesses.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. It's a fairly boring Wizardry-derived system, but there are some minor tactics associated with spellcasting, spell conservation, and item use.
  • 3 points for equipment. It gets more interesting towards the end of the game with all of the usable items that you have to puzzle out.
    
Buying items during the first half of the game.
   
  • 3 points for economy. During the first half of the game (despite initial impressions), there's not much to buy. In the second half, the economy becomes more important as you attempt to stock your inventory at the scattered stores.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The lack of graphics is notable, but the controls are easy enough and there are some scattered sound effects.
  • 2 points for gameplay. A little too long, boring, and linear, with some very odd mechanical choices, such as requiring the player to save and reload to progress.

That gives us a final score of 23, about what I expected. Tyrann might have been the best game available for the Oric or Amstrad CPC in 1984, but looking at it today, in comparison to games available for other platforms, it just seems horribly bland. When it does go off in its own direction, particularly in the second half of the game, its choices are more "weird" than "fun." I've said a similar thing about German games of the era. It feels like European developers were prizing originality for its own sake--like the wacky chef who garnishes a tenderloin with grape jelly--without stopping to consider that their innovations were at best strange and at worst completely inedible.
   
I guess if I'd thought about it more, I would have wondered who the woman on the cover was.
    
But, as I noted in the first post, enough people remembered Tyrann fondly that Norsoft re-booted last year and produced a version of Tyrann for the Android. "You're not dreaming," the summary begins, and I'm glad the authors cleared that up because I was just sitting here pinching myself. Based on the description, the updated version keeps the "two halves" approach. Reviews are mixed; a lot of people seem to be complaining about bugs.

Tyrann's sequel, Le Fer d'Amnukor, is on my list for 1986. It seems to have been released only for the Oric, meaning at some point I'll have to learn another emulator. 
   
I can't find any evidence that the authors, Rémy Gosselin and Matthias Wystrach, have any games to their credit besides Tyrann and is sequel. Similarly, Norsoft seems to have only been around for these titles. But I haven't plumbed the entirety of the French Web, so if any French-speaking readers want to see if they can dig up additional information, your contributions are welcome.

This marks the first non-English RPG that I've actually finished, which is a nice change after a streak of German RPGs that I abandoned. We'll next put my French skills to the test with 1985's Mandragore, and there will be a host of RPGs from the country during the 1986-1990 "golden age." For now, we need only two more games to wrap up 1984.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Tactical Magic

My mage consults her spellbook.
   
Until the advent of open-world games that seamlessly integrate exploration, stealth, and combat, I can't think of a single game that I'd consider truly "tactical" that didn't have a reasonably complex magic system. You can offer all the attack and parrying options that you want, but a good selection of spells more than quadruples your tactical options in the typical RPG. Without the tactical considerations involved in spell-casting (and spell conservation), Wizardry would be one of the most boring games imaginable. In Buck Rogers, we saw how the Gold Box's otherwise-excellent tactical interface was a lot more bland and tedious without magic.

(A game without spells could offer a lot of tactics related to the use of terrain, including objects in the terrain, or inventory items that stand in the place of spells. I just don't think we've seen a lot of examples of either yet.)

Yet as much as I prize good spell systems, I also tend to be a bit lazy about them. In a game with a system of any complexity, it takes an absurd amount of effort to learn, through extensive trial and error, which spells work best in which situations. With D&D games, the effort is worthwhile because the knowledge carries to dozens of titles; with standalone titles like Disciples, the effort is harder to justify.

Thus, I routinely discover, after having played a game I thought was difficult, that I had overlooked one or two spells that would have made it much easier. (In the case of Disciples of Steel, anyone who doesn't quickly discover the value of "Power Word: Stun" is making things much more difficult for himself.) In my attempt to catalog the value of various spells in the Gold Box series, I discovered numerous things I never knew--and I've been playing these games my entire life.

I caught myself doing it again with Disciples of Steel. As your spellcasting characters develop their skills in essence, karma, and power, more and more spells become available, but instead of truly investigating them, I had been leaning heavily on just four of them: my illusionist's "Power Word: Stun," my mage's "Magic Bolt," and my priest's "Bind Wounds" and "Searing Hands." Fairly recently, I've been getting some use out of my mage's "Fireball," but in general I hadn't even cast 80% of the spells available.
   
My priest heals a compatriot.
   
Part of the reason is that by allowing you to channel a varying number of points into each spell, early-level spells remain relevant well into the game. If I put 20 points into "Magic Bolt" or "Searing Hands," it's an instant-kill for most foes--but my characters can only cast a couple of these before needing to re-charge. Blasting the strongest enemy on the field with "Power Word: Stun" is such an obvious tactic that the game might as well have made it automatic. It's the only way I've been able to survive against certain foes like giants.

You can see the roots of the Wizard's Crown magic system in Disciples, but overall the game did a good job going in its own direction. Wizard's Crown had "karma" and "power" as the primary skills for priests and mages, respectively, but Disciples adds an illusionist class, assigns "power" to him, and creates a third skill called "essence" for mages. Wizard's Crown didn't allow you to vary the power of the spells (although the next SSI RPG, Shard of Spring, did), and in general, the spell list offered by Disciples is much larger and original. In Wizard's Crown, for instance, priests had only 8 prayers and none of them were offensive; in Disciples, they have 20 spells, and many of them are powerfully offensive (although you don't get most until higher levels).

Nialphe finds a good place for a "Fireball."
   
Thus, for this posting and for my own edification, I spent a significant amount of time in an orc outpost, where the random combats weren't overly difficult, testing every spell available to me. I put the individual results at the end of this posting for anyone who cares about that level of detail.
   
In general, I discovered a handful of mage spells I wasn't getting enough use of, including one that would have greatly reduced overland travel time, which is vital to a game with a time limit. I decided I was over-using my priest's single offensive spell to the exclusion of what should have been her real role--running around and healing damage before characters went unconscious or got killed. As for my illusionist, though--I'm not sure I'm convinced that "Power Word: Stun" shouldn't be the only spell he ever casts.
   
The best way to deal with a high-powered foe like this is just to remove him from the equation with "Power Word: Stun." You just have to make sure you cast it at a high enough power to stun him for enough turns.
  
Late in this session, I discovered two spell-related things that make a huge difference in gameplay:
     
1. A couple of shops sell magic mushrooms that restore spell points. You can eat them in the middle of combat for a recharge. This is huge--game-changing, really. Before the mushrooms, I could easily deplete my entire stock of spell points in a single combat round. They're expensive, but well-worth the money. In fact, the existence of these mushrooms almost redeems the game's economy.
      
2. Apparently, your list of spells is restricted not just by how many points you have in the associated skill but also how many points you have in the associated attribute. By goofing around and creating a halfling mage, I've ensured that she'll never get all the spells in the game because her max "intelligence" will never be high enough.
       
These mushrooms make a huge difference, although they're confusing. "Sprit" mushrooms are actually for mages while "Manna" are for priests and "Creauen" are for illusionists.
    
In plot terms, I've accomplished a lot since the last post. I was eager to finish visiting the capital cities of the land and see what quests the lords had for me while simultaneously clearing up my existing quest board from the cities I'd already visited.

Many of the lords' quests are intertwined, and one of the oddities of the game is that you can't deliver an item from one lord to another until the second lord asks for it. For instance, the leader of Serbia gave me a potion for the leader of Constantium, but I can't just walk up and give it to the leader of Constantium. Instead, I have to clear enough of Constantium's quests until I finally get to the one where he asks for it.

Anyway, here's a quick rundown of where I've been:

Farnus is the most powerful kingdom in Lanathor, ruled by the benevolent (perhaps overly-benevolent) King Leonidas Krassus. They are at war with Serbia over a mineral-rich river and are hoping to ally with Constantium, but Farnus's emissaries to that country keep going missing. The game starts near Farnus, so Krassus's quests are the ones most likely for a new party to encounter. In previous posts I had followed his instructions to find a survivor of the Battle of Unthar in Teal, to take a tribute to the pirate king of Teal, and killed a leader of orc raiders. In this session, I finally finished his next quest: killing the leader of some Rathadon raiders who had been killing the emissaries. His next quest was to find a party that had been shipwrecked on an uncharted isle containing the "ancient holy city of Terine." I found the party and retrieved a seal from their bodies, but the city itself was too difficult for me at this point. Farnus's next quest was to retrieve something called Thyra's Cross from the city, but I'll have to level up first.

A nice image to accompany this quest.
    
Tobruk is the kingdom of dwarves, led by Firbin "Flaming" RedForge. It is underground but has an outpost, Hollengard, on the surface. When I visited in a previous session, Firbin asked me to find the missing half of the Hammer of Balen, in possession of an orc tribe. I had found the dungeon too difficult the first time I visited, but in this session I completed it (and did most of my spell experimentation there). Solving this quest was necessary to untangle a bunch of other questlines that you'll read about below.
   
The final battle of this dungeon started the most difficult foe on the other side of a door he couldn't fit through. This made the ensuing combat much easier.
   
Rathadon, led by the dictator Krighton Krigg, seems to be the primary antagonist of the game. "Citizens live under the iron fist of Krigg's rule," the manual says, and "the penalty for any crime in Rathadon is always the same: a slow death." I visited Rathadon during this session and walked down a row of crucified corpses to Krigg.
    
      
Krigg asked me to retrieve a "gift of peace" from Denias for him. This quest isn't solvable until I do more for Denias (which means doing more for Tobruk first), but I'm not sure I even want to help this guy. I decided to attack the palace and see if I could assassinate him, thus investigating this dynamic for the first time. The game took me to a combat in the middle of the palace corridors in which dozens of guards quickly slaughtered me. I guess I'll have to save that for later.
     
This did not end well.
    
Delinor is the island realm of elves. Despite the manual's claim that human's aren't allowed in the capital city of Aragual, and no human has ever seen the 1000-year-old elf king, I was able to waltz in without trouble--although the city is ringed by a forest containing frequent combats with "living trees" that I was never able to defeat. I could barely even hit them. I had to flee and reload a lot.
    
These guys are a nightmare.
     
Anyway, Lord Rondel Ralen Ford asked me to help cure a blight by finding an herb called "julip" on the mainland. It took a bit of wandering, but I eventually found it. He then had me retrieve Webill Root from near Farnus, which also took a lot of wandering.
   
I had to march in patterns through the forest, and I ended up having to do it twice.
      
Finally, he asked me to take a new strain of wheat, "that will grow in any climate," to the people of Serbia as a gift, "so they will no longer be at mercy to the desert." Upon return from that quest, he asked me to take a supply of food to Constantium, which is suffering from a famine, but finishing this quest is held up by the interlocking Constantium/Denias/Tobruk questlines.
    
The elf lord is a pretty nice guy.
    
Constantium is a highly-organized country struggling with waning power. Lord Marwell Romanus rules from the capital of Pallasade and has grand designs about bringing a "new world order" to Lanathor. When I visited for the first time in this session, he asked me to retrieve a tribute from Denias, but I wasn't able to get anywhere with the questline until I did more for Denias, which required doing more for Tobruk first.
    
You'd think a ruler obsessed with order would wear a shirt.
   
Denias is the weakest of the kingdoms, partly because of geography: it lies in the center of the continent and has enemies on all sides. The "weak and plotting" Euthor Enning and his family rule from Cartha. I had visited in a previous session and got a quest to retrieve some mithril from the dwarves in Tobruk, but apparently I needed to solve some of the Tobruk quests first.

Sessnera is the southwest island, ruled by the pirate king Thelig Rathbone in the capital of Teal. It's not recognized by the other nations as a true kingdom, but most of them pay piracy insurance to Rathbone. For him, I retrieved a tribute from King Krassues in Farnus, cleared an infestation of bats from a tower, killed a medusa in the southeast of his island, retrieved a chest he'd buried years ago on the DeMatan coast, found a mate for his parrot, and got rid of a DeMatan sword he'd been carrying around. I wasn't able to finish his next quest to clear out a thieves' guild because the dungeon was too hard when I first visited.

Serbia is a desert in the northern part of the continent. Its capital, Kitari, lies near an oasis and is ruled by Thornet Rel Torrin. Serbians are highly honor-focused and revel in combat. They are at war with Farnus over a rich delta that would allow them to develop agriculture and mineral trade. I first visited when I brought Delinor's strain of wheat, but he didn't want it at first. Instead, just like with Delinor, he sent me on a series of herb-gathering quests, including the same two damned herbs that Delinor had asked me for. I could have saved myself a lot of walking if I'd just picked up two plants on the first visits. Anyway, after three of those quests, he finally took the wheat from Delinor and gave me a "cure for the Green Blight" to take to Constantium. That quest is now held up because I need to solve enough of the Tobruk quests to solve enough of the Denias quests to solve the first Constantium quest.
     
Why does everyone want to help Constantium so much?
      
DeMata is the only kingdom ruled by a woman, the sultry and powerful Valencia DeMata. It lies in the southern part of the main island. Valencia gave me the easiest quests so far, completed in the last post: kill an outlaw in the woods, find the outlaw's treasure horde, kill a lich raising undead in a swamp, and retrieve her father's sword from Thelig Rathbone. Her last quest was to find the "ancient holy city of Terine," which I did as part of Farnus's questline, but I haven't been back to DeMata yet.

I have no idea where this is all going. I've been assuming that I need to complete each lord's questline, at which point he'll say something like, "Farnus stands with the Disciples of Steel!" and one by one I can unify the kingdoms against the coming threat. On the other hand, it seems like Rathadon, at least, is the coming threat, so perhaps I should focus on overthrowing the kingdom rather than solving Krigg's quests. Part of me wonders if an alternate way to win the game isn't to overthrow all the kingdoms and take charge myself. I really hope by the next post, I have a stronger sense of some "main plot," or that at least I'll reach the end of at least one lord's questline.

According to the clock, meanwhile, I'm more than halfway through my time limit. It would be nice if the lords stopped giving me quests that required me to crisscross the entire continent.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I haven't talked much about sound effects. They're decent enough. We don't have any ambient sound--only a few games in my chronology have offered it--and there hasn't been any voiced dialogue since the introduction. The footstep echoes as you walk through dungeons are a little overdone, but the creaks of opening doors, and various clangs, crunches, and groans in combat are all well done.
  • Throughout my explorations, I've tried to do a better job visiting each shop and ensuring that they don't sell better items than I'm carrying. Most shops seem to specialize in one or two particularly good things.
    
This shop sells a bunch of junk and a really cool scimitar.
     
  • I want to keep reiterating how much I appreciate little atmospheric messages like this. The dungeons are full of them, and they make all the difference between a game like this and a game like Tyrann.
    
    
  • This note upon trying to enter the arena in Pallasade. Alas, no sequel was ever made.
      
This sounds like it would have been a good grinding opportunity.
    
  • You pretty much have to test every dungeon wall for secret doors lest you miss a key part of the dungeon.
  • I finally got someone to say something bad about his leader.
     
      
  • There are no encounters while traveling in a boat at sea.
  • I've stopped using the previous system to increase my characters' skills. Instead, I've just been focusing on getting their most important skills up to 200. After 200, the number of points needed to raise a skill is so high that I'm not sure how much it's worth it.
  • However, my warriors still miss high-level eneimes a lot, even with skills in "edged," "crushing," and "axe" over 200. For certain enemies, even stunned ones, I routinely have to instruct my characters to "aim" for a round before attacking, and even then I often miss.
 
I don't want to give the impression that the game has gotten easy. I still die a lot, particularly in random combats as I try to move from place-to-place, and particularly if the enemies surprise me. Nonetheless, I still like the game. It's not perfect, but it strives to be epic and it succeeds as much as any game was going to succeed in 1991.


****

Illusionist Spells:

  • Mind Flay: A reasonably-powerful "blast" spell that you cast in a direction instead of targeting a specific creature. Still, I'd rather spend the points stunning the creature instead.
  • Create Illusion: A fun spell that creates a temporary phantom to distract enemies and draw their attacks. However, only the most powerful illusions stand up against enemy attacks for more than one round. I'd rather stun the enemies.
    
At best, the illusion causes a foe to waste a combat round.
   
  • Power Word: Stun: Indispensable spell that freezes an enemy for a number of turns depending on how much power you put into it. Awesome for taking down foes that would otherwise turn you to pulp. Seems to work on anything, including undead.
  • Nature's Mask: Keeps you from experiencing random encounters while you're in camp healing or fixing equipment. I should be using it more often, as I frequently get interrupted during these periods.
  • Astral Defender: Creates illusory armor. As with the mage spell "Magic Shied," I've been neglecting it when I want to use my illusionist in melee combat.
  • Beguile: Supposedly a non-combat spell that "gives you great flexibility during negotiations." I suppose I should have been trying it while haggling, but I already have more money than I can spend.
  • Stealth: Seems to do the same thing the "hide" skill does: conceal the character on the battlefield. Useful for when you don't want enemies to focus on a weak target, I guess. I've barely used it.
  • Reveal: Shows hidden or concealed enemies. I only recently got into this spell. When enemies surprise you, they start the combat hidden, so this is useful in such situations.
  • PassDoor: I just acquired this and haven't found a locked door on which to try it, but I'm sure it just duplicates the mage's "Knock" and the thief's lockpick ability.
  • Power Word: Fear: Another spell that I just acquired. It works, but why would I make an enemy afraid rather than stunning him?
    
My illusionist has a lot of spells to go: "Confuse," "Image" (works like D&D "Mirror Image"), "Phantasm" (an advanced fear spell), "Power Word: Futility" (forces enemies to surrender), "Mass Invisibility," "The Ball" (some kind of offensive spell where you can control the movement path), "Chaos," "Power Word: Die," "Prismatic Globe," and "Astral Plane." Of the last one, the manual says, "When all hope is lost, an illusionist has one option still remaining...." I look forward to seeing what it actually does.
   
Priest Spells:
  
  • Searing Hands: Excellent combat spell, capable of instantly killing enemies at higher levels. You have to be right up next to foes to cast it, but my priest does pretty well with armor and hit points, so that's not a problem. This is my go-to offensive spell for the priest.
   
The priest fries a low-level mook.
      
  • Bind Blood: Stops allies from bleeding during combat. Like all the other healing spells, it's useful to keep everyone on their feet. I've been using it more now that my priest is capable of casting multiple spells per round. She can run around healing people as they take damage.
  • Bind Wounds: A generic healing spell that targets a specific body part and heals according to how many points you put into it. Indispensable.
  • Turn Undead: Does what it says but often fails. I'd rather blast them with "Searing Hands" instead.
  • Create Food and Create Water: Does what's indicated, but my version of the game has a bug by which food and water never deplete. I take that as compensation for the 1,000 experience points I was supposed to get.
  • Consciousness: Arouses an ally knocked unconscious by a powerful attack.
  • Clear Head: Counters stun, bemusement, and bewilderment. So far, I've only fallen victim to the first. Useful for when it happens.
    
Spells I haven't acquired yet include "Cleanse Blood" (cure poison),  "Split" (heal broken bones), "Stone to Flesh," "Cause Blindness," "Unparalyze," "Devastate," "Transport," "Banish Demon," "Plague" (this would help with the living trees), "Flamestrike," "Resurrection," and "Wrath of God." I'm particularly interested in "Tranport" because the manual doesn't indicate what it does except "move your party to the desired destination." I hope it allows me to city-hop and thus take less time to cross the continent.

Mage Spells:
 
  • Magic Bolt:  A generic "blast" for mages, capable of killing creatures in one hit at high levels. No one seems to be immune. My go-to spell for the mage character.
  • Magic Shield: One of the more useful spells to come out of this session. I often use my mage in melee combat, just to ensure she gets experience points, so this is a good defensive spell for such occasions.
  • Light of Day: I can't figure out for the life of me what it's supposed to do. "Brings forth a brilliant flare that travels with the party, illuminating potential foes." You can't see foes in the environment, so that description doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe it protects against surprise attacks?
  • Compass: Useless spell that just tells you the way you're facing. The auto-map already takes care of that for you. Maybe later there will be a dungeon where the auto-map doesn't work.
  • Knock: Could be useful, but my thief is able to pick most locks that don't require keys.
  • Invisibility: Theoretically useful to keep a character out of combat; I need to experiment more.
  • Find Traps: Anyone with high "perception" skill renders this moot.
  • Mystical Beasts: Ack! I should have read the description in the manual much earlier on this one. I thought it conjured an ally. Instead, it conjures steeds for the party to use when traveling overland, reducing travel time. If I run out of time in the game, you can all accuse me of failure to RTFM carefully.
  • Wall of Fire: Helps shape the battlefield by turning a square into fire, burning enemies that walk into it. If enemies weren't scattered randomly when combat begins, this would be more useful.
  • Fireball: Works like its Gold Box counterpart, but on the entire visible screen, and doesn't do quite as much damage. A great way to weaken a large number of enemies, but rarely kills them outright even at maximum power.
  • Annihilation: Saps life from a single foe. "Magic Bolt" works better.
  • Sprint: Decent spell that doubles movement speed but not number of attacks. I find it useful in outdoor combats when enemies start pretty far away, and half the battle is just getting to them.
  • Lightning Bolt: Acts like the D&D version of the spell, frying a line of enemies. I just got it, and my first castings have been very promising. You just have to  make sure no allies are in the way.
     
I've yet to acquire "Slow," "Time Stop," "DeathStrike," "Lead to Gold," "IceStorm," "Destruction," and "Zap." They all sound pretty powerful, but because of the intelligence issue, I don't think I'll ever get them.