Sunday, October 28, 2012

10 Magic the Gathering horrors from the Innistrad block

At the end of last October, I produced a Halloween post on black creatures from Magic the Gathering, only to have a whole horror based block to burst on the scene too late for me to make any changes to it.  So this year, I'm going to give you some Innistrad horrors, none of which are black in order to give the other colours a fair shot.  Don't have nightmares!

Unruly Mob
'Scared people.  Give me a Dalek any day.' - The Doctor in A town Called Mercy.

Some of the best horror stories don't actually include a big scary monster but instead have people become the monsters through fear, hysteria or just because they are that bad.  Unruly mobs appear a lot in gamebooks, such as in Spellbreaker when you are accused of being a witch whilst on a quest to rid the land of evil.  It seems that no good deed goes unpunished. 

Manor gargoyle

Horror, like humour, involves turning expectations on their heads.  One of these methods involves having seemingly lifelfess objects come to life and attack the poor adventurers.  Of course, this is used so often now that most adventurers expect a statue to come to life and attack them which is why, in my gamebook War of Deities part 1, I threw in a little subversion with a skeleton.

Afflicted Desterter and Werewolf Ransacker

Werewolves.  They always turn up in gamebooks and you can even play as one in howl of the Werewolf.  It also includes a very good puzzle where you have to work out who the werewolf is using an illustration and text as a clue.

Creepy Doll

 Most dolls are creepy, especially when they come to life and try to kill you.  I don't think I need to say any more on the issue.

Laboratory Maniac

It is great to persue knowledge but horror stories are full of scientists who go too far and sacrifice their humanity for what they think is the greater good.  This is what the laboratory maniac is all about.  MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Nearhearth Stalker

Another good horror trope involves people surrendering to their basest impulses, something the Innistrad vampires enjoy.  This one also enjoys a good horror trope of being able to come back, because after all, the best horror stories leave room for the villain to return.

Headless Skaab

Zombies are great, especially ones that are stictched together from body parts.  This one is also open to classic 'keep your head' jokes.

Mad Prophet

There's nothing better than having a lunatic raving about how the world will end and that 'They' are everywhere.  Always adds a touch of class to a good horror story.

Raging poltergeist

There's nothing in the room.  except that axe that's flyinig towards my head.  Poltergeists are great because you can never see them and you can't harm them.  And that's how horror should be - surprise and an enemy you can't kill.

Cloistered Youth and Unholy Fiend

No one suspects the innocent child.  Horror is about turning expectations around and thinking that a youth could turn into a crazed killer is one of those expectation turning moments.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Battlemaster (MMORPG) showed me a wealth of non magical rewards.

It might look fun
now but it will lose
its appeal in book 11.
This post is all about how the game Battlemaster  and how it showed me that there are plenty of opportunities for success without having to stuff my gamebook full of powerful magical stat boosting items that   don't fit into the game world and would lower the chances of using the same character in a future book unless they had to lose the items somehow (causing annoyance) or the power of the enemies had to increase (which may lead to power creep).  

Lone Wolf books suffered from this problem when the hero got the Sommerswerd, a +8 combat skill sword that deals double damage against undead creatures and absorbs hostile magic in book 2.  In order to balance out this massive bonus, certain encounters were made harder if you had the Sommerswerd and in book 12, using the Sommerswerd might lead to instant death.

Battlemaster is a text based RPG set in a low fantasy. low magic world.  I actually came across it when I was googling an Atari ST game of the same name.

Battlemaster showed me that there can be plenty of rewards and character development in a setting without having to give players tons of magical items or gold pieces.  Instead, success is obtained by taking part in great deeds such as fighting for your country or trading, being part of a team and roleplaying.

It's not about the mace
or the magic.
You can have two (or three if you donate enough real life money to the website) characters who are nobles and who can belong to one of several classes (the main ones being warrior, courtier or priest, but warriors and courtiers also have subclasses).  Priests play a very different game to warriors and courtiers and have nothing to do with healing magic.   

You can also have one character who is an adventurer. They may become a noble one day, but at the moment, they play a very different game which involves scratching a living and fighting unnatural horrors personally rather than taking part in state affairs and fighting them as part of an army.

An example character sheet
from the tutorial.
Unlike a lot of role playing games, you do not have many attributes to think about.  Your main personal stats are honour and prestige which are linked to how courageous you are and how involved you were in important events in the country respectively.  Your character also has values in certain skills, depending on what class you are.  Most classes can train in the swordfighting skill, but there are other skills such as leadership or oratory.  Not a strength, dexterity or wisdom in sight.

I'd make a joke about a badly made
arrow but there wouldn't be a point
to it.
You can get wounded, but the extent of your health is measured by being OK, lightly wounded, seriously wounded or dead.

Death, however, is an extremely rare occurrence and is only possible if you are executed for commited a serious crime or a series of crimes or decide to duel someone to the death and lose.  You cannot die in battle unless you are the hero class or you are an adventurer and you battle a powerful undead creature or monster.

In addition to your personal stats warriors and courtiers can also command a unit of soldiers with a selection of paraphernalia.  

This means that instead of fighting to survive, gameplay is based more around making a name for yourself and roleplaying with the other players.  Rewards come in the form of wealth, honour, prestige, fame, titles, responsibilities in the realm and, if you make some contacts with adventurers (as they are the only characters who can talk to sages and wizards), important artefacts or maybe even the ability to cast spells.

If you like more role playing based rewards, you could write your family history in the wiki, try to top the infiltrator stats board or you could write role play messages to all of your fellow players about literally anything.  you could write an acoount of a battle that you were in, describe the undead or monsters you fought  (there are no descriptions in the instructions presumably to increase the role playing potential for the players), how one of your soldiers tripped and banged his head or what you had for dinner.  Roleplaying opportunities are everywhere, including a guide on how to name your unit.   

There are many ways to be rich and successful without power creep or by amassing a huge pile of magical items.  One of my gripes with some gamebooks was that even as a famous adventurer who had seen many campaigns, you only carry a sword and some food until you go on this adventure which just happens to be in the one place with a disproportionately high magic item density.

Adventurers in this game can find items but most are useless (apart from selling them or possibly being components for unique items) and the useful ones are non magical (apart from portal stones)

Almost all of the awards in battlemaster are non magical.  Even the effects of the artefacts (prestige increase and possibly a skill boost) could just be down to the effect it has in peoples' heads rather than due to any magic.   

The only definately magical items are portal stones (which don't seem to active yet) and spell scrolls (which I didn't know about until I started this post) and these items are very rare.

Just explore and enjoy.
However, none of this matters.  Despite the game focusing on being in a team and role playing rather than amassing items, Battlemaster is still a game of infinite opportunity with the potential to be a great success who is part of a great story and all of this is done without having to unbalance the game by obsessing over stats.

I have not mentioned all the features of Battlemaster but it is well worth a look in if you enjoy role playing RPGs.

Battlemaster was also the reason I started writing gamebooks.  My first attempt at writing a four hundred paragraph gamebook was based on Battlemaster.  It went awry when my attempts at randomising the paragraphs went pear shaped (I just put the numbers in as I went along and soon lost track of which paragraphs went where). However, like all complete disasters, a lot of great things came from it, and it inspired me to write at least one four hundred paragraph gamebook just to prove that I could.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Computer games - Moria (and other roguelikes)

Would you build a town above
a huge dungeon of monsters?
Moria (which you can download for free from here or here) is a roguelike computer game that I played on my Atari ST.  The premise was simple.  You were a hero who had to descend into the dungeons of Moria (a dungeon populated with a multitude of dangerous and powerful monsters) from the town that is built on top of it(?) and fight your way to level 50 where the Balrog may be (you may have to go lower to find it) and then kill it.

I used to be completely addicted to this game.  Completely.  It took ages to get the experience, stats and magical items before I was even near to killing the Balrog.  I admit that I did it via save scumming too.  The computer would delete your character file if you died so I would always copy it to another place on the disk.  Here I a few memories...

You had to haggle for literally everything,
including a ration with an asking price of 5gp.
You probably could haggle him down to 3gp.
Great use of game time.
I decided to play a human ranger  and doggedly tried to kill the Balrog.  Eventually, I was victorious with my Holy Avenger battle axe, but it took a while.  Here are a few things I remember from Moria.

I had to learn what the characters meant.  Everything in the game was represented by ASCII characters with letters representing monsters.  I learnt to be wary of a B (Balrog) or a D (Ancient dragon.)

Haggling took forever!  Forunately in later editions, they just dropped the price to whatever the final asking price before just offering the asking price.

Stinking cloud would get rid of all the mice (the rs)
I constantly bought scrolls of *Enchant Weapon* and *Enchant Armour* in the hope that this time, they would improve the weapon.

The delay on a scroll of recall was sometimes deadly.

I learnt fast with a horde of lice that area effect weapons are really useful

I cast remove curse on a ring of weakness but left it on because it looked pretty, not realising that the effect still stayed.

You could even do some mining.
My tactics at higher levels was to have two rings of speed (which made me faster than everyone except the Balrog) and bash monsters so that they were stunned and couldn't move.  It worked as long as monsters with powerful ranged weapons, such as dragons, were not able to use them.

I played a human ranger (a warrior who can cast mage spells in game terms) and required an extra 50% experience for my versatility.  It was worth it, though.

Things you really need:  Rings of Speed (x2), the see invisible ability (part of my holy avenger axe), remove poison magic, remove curse magic, freedom of movement (also part of my holy avenger axe), restore life levels potions, potions of healing, scrolls of Word of Recall (but don't forget that they have a delay), a sustain stat item (also part of my Holy Avenger axe.  The Holy Avenger ability is very useful.)

Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM)
is a little more complicated than Moria.
I found this game addictive because there were plenty of items to discover and since each was randomly generated, (and regenerated every time you return) there was plenty of exploring to do.  There were also a wide range of monsters.  Each character could have different descriptions (a p for humanoid, for example could have many descriptions such as a filthy street urchin to an evil iggy.)  There were also plenty of things to deal with - mining, disarming traps, fighting (plenty of it), picking locks and many many more things to do.

There are tons and tons of roguelike games which vary greatly - some have deep stories, some have graphics, some are quick and easy and some are based on a Fighting Fantasy book.  You can find the Roguelike wiki here.

To finish off, here are a couple of Moria moments from Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring in Moria ASCII:

Boromir takes a sneaky peak.
Gandalf vs the Balrog

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Computer games - Mystic Well

Mystic Well is a 1st person RPG that came with issue 28 of the ST Format magazine.  It is a game that I really got into and it showed me the value of exploring and discovering.

It's a very basic and straightforward RPG, its creators not wanting to burden you with complications like instructions or telling you what the hell is going on.  It saves you the effort of having to sit through an introduction and goes straight to telling you to reroll stats or to pick a class for your character.  I like it when my games are to the point.  

You have four stats - strength, agility, reason and vigour which, have some affect on the game.  OK, I expect strength is how much damage you do, agility relates to your chances of getting hit, reason affects your spellcasting ability(?) and vigour definitely affects how many health points you get when you level up.  

Am I doing well?  At least my character is smiling.
You also get four other stats which change when you wear different types of armour or use different spells, but they just have weird symbols followed by the letters AP and I have no idea what they do.  But I try to increase them anyway.

There is a bar for health, energy, food and water.  You need to eat and drink to stay healthy.  Energy decreases whenever you perform an action and you cannot do anything other than move when it is 0.  It increases with time, its speed being dependent on your food and water level(?)

Still, it's fun to discover!

You have the choice of four classes which get different bonuses from the available weapons and armour and they each have their own special skills, which you activate if you press the diamond icon while their right hand is empty.  The warrior can perform a big attack (I think; it does reduce energy to 0), the thief can jump two squares (quite handy to get over pits), the priest can bless themselves and heal themselves simultaneously and the wizard can't do anything.  Ah, that must be it!  The wizard can cast spells (written on blue paper with yellow bits on the top and bottom) without destroying them after the first time they cast them.  Nice work, wizard.

So it's not totally user friendly, but what it did do was make me work to find things out and experiment.  In some weird twist to the story, plunging me into a dungeon with no instructions, aim or items made every mundane act an act of discovery.  Wizards don't get the same bonuses from leather armour as warriors.  If you press the diamond button while holding a club, you can throw it.  This wall is fake.  Some mirrors are magical and show you a map of the dungeon (you have to find out which ones by holding one in your right hand and, yes, pressing the diamond button) etc.

Eventually, after lots of experimenting, I managed to clear the various levels of the castle and make it to a crazy level with blue walls, dragons and crazy robots.  I fought my way through this level to find a room where a floating yellow skull attacked me mercilessly.  I killed it to get a congratulations message and then the game continued.  Was that it?  Did I just win?  If so, why am I still playing on?

This means game over.
Despite (and perhaps because of) its lack of clarity, I enjoyed Mystic Well because it had a huge area to explore with lots of good items scattered around the area (the item distribution was done well.  There were plenty of good rewards after difficult bits and the monster advancement was good).  It also gave me a buzz, when I discovered what certain items did and when I discovered a new hidden place.

If you want to get ahead quickly, then you can find a fireball flinging sword if you fall down a couple of pits, so if you find the pits and can survive the fall, then you can get ahead.  I also remember a way of finding a piece of twisted mithral when you are at a low level, which, if you throw it  in the well, will raise your level to fourteen.

Cheer up.  Here's an
ST Format...
I need to apply this level of discovery to other gamebooks.  I always got a buzz when I discovered the way of overcoming a problem I had been unable to solve.  The one that sticks out in my mind the most was the Toadmen in Creature of Havoc.  I had the solution, I had just got so immersed in the book that I had forgotten to think about which paragraph I was on.  I was on 287 and since I was with Grog, I should have subtracted 52 from the paragraph number.  When I read the paragraph, I enjoyed reading the first line:

'In the heat of the battle, you have forgotten all about the litte half orc...'

I certainly had.  I wonder if Steve Jackson knew this?

So the lesson from Mystic Well is that keeping information secret in order to be found out is fun.  I won't do it to the extent that Mystic Well did (and I can't in a gamebook due to the differences in format.  Imagine if Fighting Fantasy didn't have a rules section.)  But I must remember that discovery is fun :).

You can play Mystic Well on the PC if you download an Atari ST emulator (such as STEem) and then download the file.

Bonus extra review

The above link goes to a review written at the time.  I love the following quote:

'The game itself was, as far as I could tell, well enough written
and ran smoothly with very little disk accessing.'

This bought back a whole load of memories of my Atari ST where I would play for five minutes at a time before the computer accessed the disc.  A little green light would flicker and the computer would make a soft thudding noise as the game would freeze, waiting for its next set of instructions.  Mystic Well did not need to access the disc very much.  It's funny what people used to look for in a game.  

Finally, if you are Jim Todd, the creator of Mystic Well, please get in touch as I'd love to know what all the stats mean and what the spell Mnemonic enhancer does.