Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 2: Exposition and Inventory

This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.  You also might want to first read Part One.

Most would agree that a massive underground dungeon full of lethal monsters and ventilation issues wouldn't be the most compelling environment for exploration--I personally find woodland trails to be a delight--and as such a back story was provided to grant Dungeon Master's concept something resembling justification.

At this point in my playthrough attempt I hadn't yet revisited the manual to refresh my memory, but such was my childhood obsession that I didn't need it.  The story is as follows:
  1. The Gray Lord--some kind of benevolent Christ-like figure--attempts a tricky move with something called a Firestaff, a tricky move that would bring world peace if successful.  
  2. The tricky move doesn't go so hot and fantasy world Jesus is torn into two separate beings, one representing his law-abiding impulses and one representing the chaotic.
  3. The latter, Lord Chaos, takes up residence in fantasy world Jesus's underground complex and warps it into a death trap full of monsters and puzzles, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
  4. The lawful manifestation sends his formless apprentice--represented by us, the players--into the death trap dungeon to revive four fallen champions, use them to retrieve the Firestaff which enabled this mess, and then return the Firestaff to the lawful manifestation so that he can defeat Lord Chaos.
  5. Oh yeah, this must be done because the fuck up with the staff also resulted in the world being thrown into a PERPETUAL NIGHTMARE where war ravages the land and soldiers chase crying children in the streets.  This is an important motivating detail.
Without the manual or the magic of google, the author of the
backstory shall remain forever unknown.
This was compelling stuff in the seventh grade.

Well, my party of champions didn't have a Firestaff--hell, we didn't yet have more than pairs of pants--and so on we marched.

Zed and company descended to level two, the level most well-worn in my mind from the constant replaying  I did as a kid as an alternative to the whole actually-making-progress-in-the-game thing.  I took one look at the small stock of torches we carried, sneered, and spiked them all right into the trash.

See, Dungeon Master was unusual in that it pioneered a classless skill system in which experience was gained in skills by using them, and class ranks were earned by earning experience in related skills.  Start waving around a sword and your character will get better at using a sword and eventually level up as a fighter.  Throw weapons at monsters and improve as a ninja.  Mix healing potions and improve as a priest.  Cast certain spells and improve as a wizard.

Or, as anyone past the training wheels portion of Dungeon Master knows, do all four simultaneously and constantly if you want to survive.

And so I chucked the torches.

"But we need torches to see!" Zed complained, at which point I commented that nobody needs to get better at holding a torch and this light spell wasn't going to improve itself.

The first monster of the dungeon and the first skirmish with true danger.  
It was no apprehensive, pasty pre-teen boy at the helm, I can tell you.  It was time for these once-failed "champions" to start earning their keep.

We started making our way through level two. I was a little apprehensive about the lack of an automap because there's no way in hell I'm cranking out the graph paper and mechanical pencils--it's 2012, for god's sake--but I found things reasonably straightforward.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that gameplay generally hadn't aged a day, and once I got comfortable with the controls I was impressed with how much the game sucked me in. Playing Dungeon Master stopped being a nostalgia exercise and turned instead into an addicting, fun experience in and of itself.

Well, except for the aspects that hadn't aged well. The graphics were quite impressive in their own right and easily held their own--at least as far as this sort of thing went--but there were certain aspects of presentation and user interface that have rightly been excised from games during the 25 years since.

The slightly clunky inventory screen.  This screenshot was taken
from far later in the game; Boris didn't start the game with the Firestaff
and a Health of 295.
Inventory management, for example, was unnecessarily convoluted and leaned too heavily on dragging items around in a virtual approximation of the physical act being simulated--drag items to the eye icon to look at them, drag chests to the hand icon to open them, drag food to the mouth icon to eat it, etc. I recognize that Dungeon Master was a pioneering game and as such didn't quite have everything yet worked out, but all of this functionality could have been replaced by a simple left or right mouse click.

I mean, I get it: you see with your eyes, hold with your hand, and eat with your mouth, but I give thanks with all of my body that subsequent games recognized all this dragging as the the ballast it was.

Less forgivable was the fact that the game didn't actually ever give stats (beyond weight) of any gear, so deciding what armor to wear or what weapons to use was largely guesswork based on trial and error. I know some of the DMcore will defend this as a more realistic system that didn't coddle players, but I found it to be a needlessly complicated design choice that got in the way of fun.  It didn't take long for me to adopt the "looking spoilers up online" approach to gear management.

These monsters are considerate enough to impart edible food upon
death.  Screamer slice?  I'd eat that.
As I can already sense legacy gamers everywhere sharpening their vorpal blades with violent promise at my words, let me clarify that these issues were minor and Dungeon Master still otherwise played brilliantly.  The past 25 years hadn't rendered the game any less compelling.

Back in the dungeon, Zed and company managed to knock out level two in less than an hour.  We had a close call with a few sets of aggressive sentient mushroom-things called screamers, but we squeaked through and reached the stairs down to level three, the first branching level of the dungeon and the one on which the younger me repeatedly met his personal barrier of no passage.

It was also the level on which the fuses were lit in such a way that the current me almost met my match as well, but I'll save that story for a subsequent installment.

We descended down.

Up next: choose your door, choose your fate, choose burial by worms.

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