Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ultima Underworld: Artifice and Artifacts

The Avatar contemplates something rash.
Let's take a moment to consider the "eight arcane artifacts" collected by Sir Cabirus, of which I now have seven (the Avatar seems to have completely forgotten about rescuing kidnapped girls). They are:
  • Book of Truth or Honesty depending on whether you go by the manual (Truth) or the in-game description (Honesty)
  • Ring of Humility
  • Cup of Wonder
  • Shield of Valor
  • Standard of Honor
  • Sword Caliburn, unique in not naming a virtue, but according to its description, it could "cleave truth from falsehood."
  • Taper of Sacrifice
  • Wine of Compassion
The artifacts are a near-but-not-perfect fit with the eight virtues of the Avatar: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. The manual's use of "Book of Truth" was a bad idea, because not only is truth a "principle" of virtue, and not a virtue, but there was already an artifact of that name, used with the Candle of Love and the Bell of Courage to enter the Abyss in Ultima IV. If all three artifacts had made a re-appearance here, that wouldn't have been a bad idea, but it's clear from the backstory that these artifacts are a new set.
I obtain the Shield of Valor from a golem.
Though it doesn't say so anywhere, Caliburn is clearly supposed to be associated with justice. Spirituality, however, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get the "Cup of Wonder." It supposedly comes from an ancient oak in Skara Brae, so it has that connection to spirituality, but I question whether "wonder" and "spirituality" are truly synonyms, and even so, whether a cup is the best way to depict it. Yes, I sometimes see weird things and get a sense of awe when I'm drunk, but I wouldn't exactly call that "spiritual."

Some of the other choices are also odd. I'm all for the Standard of Honor, the Book of Honesty, and the Taper of Sacrifice. The latter is a particularly good metaphor: it "produces light only through its own destruction." On the other hand, literally displaying humility on your finger as jewelry seems a bit paradoxical. And why is wine associated with compassion? I guess we can add sympathy to the virtues we can only feel three sheets to the wind. Meanwhile, a sword only symbolizes "justice" in cases where someone has to be killed. If the person is innocent, that's not really just; that's terrifying. I don't know what should symbolize innocence--maybe a key or some kind of check for reparations. Actually, that would be a better idea: the Coin of Justice. It goes the defendant if falsely accused and to the victim otherwise. The sword should be associated with valor: the commandment to seek and destroy evil. Then you make the shield associated with compassion, because you're literally shielding people from danger. For spirituality, you make a damned ankh cross that you can carry with you, because it's the sign of spirituality (as well as the "complete" eight virtues) everywhere else in the setting. Really, how hard is this?
Nothing says humility like bling!
In any event, I started this session with the blade part of Caliburn, the Standard of Honor, and the Taper of Sacrifice. I collected the rest over the course of Levels 5 and 6.

Both levels replaced water with lava--rivers and pools of it all over the place. It was naturally deadly to fall into, but on Level 5, I found a "ghoul" who fancied himself a tailor. When I showed him my dragon scales, he made a set of fireproof "dragon skin boots" from them in exchange for some food. The boots allow me to walk freely across the lava, because lava is perfectly safe as long as it doesn't come in direct contact with your skin.
A scientifically-accurate screen shot.
Level 5 appeared to be the ruins of Sir Cabirus's administration center. It was dominated by a large "High State Chamber" with multiple alcoves overlooking it and a huge rectangular meeting table. These days, it was swarming with headless, skeletons, and giant spiders. Weeds and mushrooms grew in the corners of the formerly-noble corridors, now patrolled by ghosts.
Fighting a headless next to Cabirus's meeting table.
The southwestern part of the level was taken up by a set of "zanium" mines, and the southeastern corridors were the homes of "ghouls," basically just humans who had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive and had thus become outcast from other humans. Some of the ghouls had fallen so far that they lost their mines and became hostile--one might even say "feral"--and attacked me in the areas outside the enclave.
None of this explains why their language degraded.
The northeastern section served as the cemetery for the Abyss, with multiple rooms full of gravestones, and a ghost or skeleton standing next to just about every stone. Oddly, the whole "bullfrog" puzzle from Level 4 was dedicated to finding a back stairway down to this area, but you can reach it without having to solve that puzzle via an obvious secret door. 
In a world of undead, why isn't everyone just cremated?
Level 6 was a complicated level full of lava, platforms above and around the lava, and islands within it. It took a lot of jumping to get around the level. Within that lava, a new enemy was introduced: fire elementals. These bastards are capable of throwing actual fireballs at you. I defeated them by hiding behind nearby walls and darting out to zap them with a Wand of Lightning.
I'm close here, but you really don't want to get this close.
The southern area of Level 6 was dominated by the Seers, including about eight named NPCs who had various side-quests and hints for the artifacts. One of them, named Dominus, agreed to identify my items, which was nice, but he requires 10 gold pieces per identification. Gold is heavy to carry around. I was a little annoyed that he wouldn't take gems or gold nuggets or anything. Still, I left plenty of gold on Level 4, and after this session, I'll probably spend some time shuttling it down.

The first clue I got about an artifact was from a ghoul named Shanklick, who said the pommel for Caliburn was hidden among the tombs in the northeast section of the level. Sure enough, it was just laying there on the ground. I'm glad no one tossed it in the trash. I ran it back up to Shak on Level 2, who reunited it with the blade for 20 gold pieces.
This reminds me of my favorite scene in Lord of the Rings, where the elf smith assembles the broken shards of Narsil on the anvil and starts hammering away at the cracks, as if that's how broken blades are actually reforged.
Caliburn replaced my jeweled magic longsword. I don't care if Caliburn is technically the best weapon in the game or not. It's indestructible, it's magic, and it's a sword. No way am I adding 4 more pounds to my encumbrance to carry something else.

("Caliburn" is, of course, the original version of what would become "Excalibur" in Arthurian legend. The original form is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae of 1136. The sword is called Caledfwlch in Welsh legend and its variants include "Esclabor," "Eschaliborc," and "Estalibore." In the earliest tales featuring the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur is that sword, but in later versions, including Malory, the Sword in the Stone is a different sword, and Arthur gets Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.)

The next artifact I found was the Ring of Humility. It should have been the first, but when I originally reached the lever puzzle in the northwest corner of Level 5, I had forgotten that one of the knights already gave me the solution.
Getting the Ring of Humility was a matter of flipping four switches in the right order while avoiding the center of the room.
On Level 6, a seer named Dr. Owl was grateful that I'd freed his associated, Murgo, from the lizardmen on the earlier level. He not only gave me a Flam rune but told me where to find the Wine of Compassion under a secret compartment in a checkerboard area of the level.
Is it the wine itself or the bottle that holds the enchantment?
The clue to the Book of Honesty came from a seer named Morlock. To get it, I had to deliver a book to him from another seer without reading it, then answer honestly when he praised me for killing a hydra. The kicker? I'd already found the Book of Honesty by just wandering around.
It's a good thing I remembered I hadn't killed such a beast. I kill so many things.
The last artifact I obtained was the Shield of Valor, held by a stone golem standing on a platform amidst a pool of lava. He warned me when I approached that he was nigh-unbeatable, and that he had been placed there to test knights.

In combat with the stone golem.
He was tough, but I was able to defeat him by quaffing a few potions during the battle and using my Wand of Fireball a few times. When I had the shield, I replaced my existing tower shield under the same logic as the sword above.

As far as the Cup of Wonder, I have a couple of clues but no idea what to do with them. A seer on Level 6 taught me how to use incense and a torch to have visions. I got a stark one of what I assume is the Cup of Wonder floating in space.
I mean, it's a nice cup, sure.
Meanwhile, a ghoul named Eyesnack said he used to play the flute for Sir Cabirus, who enjoyed a spiritual called "Mardin's Song of Wonder." Eyesnack taught me the notes to play it, and I have a flute, but I don't know where to play it, only that if "you play it in the right place, wondrous thing happen." Maybe it will become clear on a lower level.
In addition to the artifacts, there were of course plenty of side quests on the two levels. The single ankh shrine on Level 5 was tended by a mage named Anjor who wanted me to help him find a mineral called "zanium" which helps in the process of turning lower metals to gold. The dwarves apparently used to mine it in the southwest section of the level, but the mines were closed and locked by a lever puzzle.
I'm surprised you don't have other priorities here in the Abyss.
A ghoul named Kneenibble had once worked in the mines and new the code to set the levers, but he wanted 10 fish before he'd give me the code. I had to return to an earlier level and use the fishing pole for a while.

With his code, I set the levers, entered the mine, ran around collecting zanium, and returned it to Anjor. He promised me he'd make me a huge gold nugget, but it would take an hour. I wandered away to do more exploring in the meantime and completely forgot to go back until now, as I type this. I almost don't want to. I don't have space for a huge gold nugget and don't know what I need it for anyway.
Fighting a ghost while collecting zanium.
Also on Level 5, standing on a platform amidst the lava, I encountered Judy, an old woman pining for her lost lover, Tom. She said she used to have a picture to remember him but had since lost it. I got a chill of terror when I met Judy and immediately took a save game that I'm keeping separate. The last time I played Ultima Underworld, Judy fell into the lava, and I was unable to complete the game because she has some key item. (I can't honestly remember if that was the second or only time I played this previously; it's possible that even back in the 1990s, I didn't win the game.) To test how that might have happened, I spent some time bumping into Judy, and while she does fall into the lava, she doesn't sink--she just stands there. So I'm not sure what happened the first time. I just pray it doesn't happen again.
This probably wasn't nice, but I had to know.
Of the other Level 6 seers, one of them told me that there are lost mantras that can deliver items or information when used at shrines. One powerful mantra was "divided into three parts," but she didn't know any of them. Illomo wants me to find his friend Gurstang, but I haven't yet. Ranthru wanted me to return a stolen copy of On the Properties of Runestones and increased my magic ability when I did. Fyrgen recently had a vision of some kind of demon entering our world.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I am heartily sick of being poisoned.
Argh. Enough of this.
  • It's funny how the designers made the ghosts look like stereotypical Halloween ghosts.
Why not just give them cloth sheets?
  • The toughest puzzle I faced on Level 5 was getting out of an area where a grate closed behind me. The solution was to use a key found in the area on the grate. I hope you can understand why it took me so long--what was I using the key on?
The key unlocks what lock?
  • I haven't been mentioning it much, but every time I sleep, the face that started the game--I assume it's Sir Cabirus--appears in my dreams with fragments of text. He never really manages to say anything coherent.
". . . eat a balanced diet."
If you drink more than 2 bottles of regular alcohol, your vision goes wonky. If you drink more than 4, you pass out and wake up in the morning.
  • Sick of encumbrance problems, I ditched my plate leggings for some leather ones, saving 4 pounds. Combat hasn't been hard enough that I need all this plate.
I found the final mantras to the skills on these levels. "Lore" was one of the last that I found, and afterwards I spent four slots on it, but my current level (18) still isn't enough to identify everything. I'm between 17 and 20 with "Attack," "Defense," "Sword," "Mana," and "Casting." Annoyingly, I'm about to hit the game's level maximum of 16. I'm currently at 15. That grinds my gears. A level cap should never be reachable through normal gameplay unless the player does a lot of grinding.

I stopped leveling "Search" because I seem to do well enough finding secret doors at its current level (14), and honestly, I'm not sure what the skill really does because it seems to me that every time you eyeball a secret door, it tells you. I haven't found a lock I've needed to pick in about two levels, so I stopped leveling that skill. I have not once used my 11 points in "Repair," since my items rarely degrade below "serviceable." "Swimming" no longer seems a good investment, but I suppose a few more points in "Acrobat" might have helped against some damage. Frankly, the most baffling skill to me is "Traps." Is there a single trap in the game? 
Some of the ways that the game teaches you mantras are amusing.
I am pleased to report that I at last have a complete rune bag. My last two were Flam, given to me by Dr. Owl the Seer, and Vas, was the result of following a complex set of instructions from a seer named Gralwart. Perhaps now is the time to start casting more spells than In Lor ("Light"), In Mani ("Heal"), and In Mani Ylem ("Create Food").

I'll try to test more spells from the spellbook on the last two levels, especially since I've learned so many undocumented spells, like "Monster Summoning," "Sheet Lightning," and "Turn Undead" from scrolls and NPCs.
This would have been more useful on the earlier level.
As for the monsters that I might encounter to test the spells on, a quick scan of the bestiary shows that I have yet to face any golems other than the stone golem, imps, reapers, invisible "shadow beasts," or wisps.

Despite my demonstrated ability to tackle two levels at a time, I suspect the events on the next two will be complicated enough that I'll need at least two or three more entries to finish this one. Still having a great time.

Time so far: 21 hours

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Nippon: The Age of Sail

My discoveries in the top half of the game world.
I'm not ready to say that it works particularly well as an RPG, but Nippon is turning out to be an interesting game that puts an emphasis on open-world exploration. It has an Ultima III-V quality of needing to find cities, people, and clues, but with less guidance as to your overall mission and goals. 

Combat plays such an incidental role that I suspect you could win the game without it. I don't know for sure. It's possible that later stages will have some necessary combats, and I'll be grateful for whatever time I spent in weapons training and character development. So far, however, I think I could have avoided every fight by just ignoring enemies and running past them. They don't really pursue you. In fact, your icons can run right over each other, so they're not even capable of standing in your way. Moreover--and again I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so--the game doesn't seem to have any dungeons. Most of your time is spent in cities and towns where combat isn't even an option.
 I still fight a lot between cities in case experience points become important.
After the last session, I decided to get more serious about my approach to the game. I brought the world map into ArcGIS as a raster and created a layer on top of it to record the locations of cities, castles, and other physical features. I spent a long, snowy day exploring all of the landmasses in the top half of the map, recording as many locations as I could find. I'm sure there are some others hidden behind impassable mountains, but I have to find some manner of flight before I can record them. There were more than a dozen cities in this area, and almost 150 NPCs. 
Unsurprisingly, ArcGIS can't figure out the projection and coordinate system for Nippon.
I ended up re-visiting some of the cities I'd already visited, because I discovered something new (and somewhat annoying) about the NPC "stance" system. Not only do NPCs refuse to speak with you if you pick the wrong stance, but some of them don't offer all of their dialogue keywords unless you choose a particular stance. All this time, I thought I'd chosen the "right" stance because I picked something like "normal" or "friendly" and the NPC continued to talk with me. But it turns out that I needed to pick a different one to get the full story. Expecting players to get it right, or to go outside and return several times for every NPC, was terribly unfair of the developers. There are a few places in which NPCs give you hints about the right stance to take, but they're certainly not ubiquitous.
Finding the in-game maps of cities continues to be vital, but so far I haven't been crazy enough to bring them into my GIS system to pinpoint NPCs.
Also, based on the fact that a few NPCs in early cities had more to say after I visited other cities, I suspect that some keywords don't unlock until you've spoken to other NPCs. Fortunately, such cases are usually determinable through the context of the conversation. For instance, if Yoshimoto tells me that he heard a rumor from Takagi in Yugure, I know I have to revisit the latter NPC.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of my visits, but here are the summary highlights.

Gold turns out to be a non-issue if you're willing to spend some time. Since cities re-set every time you leave and return, so do the hordes of gold. In Ubamachi, I could pick up almost 600 gold pieces per visit for the cost of two keys. In Takedo, it was double that amount. This revelation had the effect of making combats particularly pointless. Picking up gold, leaving the city, swapping disks, re-entering, and walking back to the gold is somewhat boring, but if you're binging Jessica Jones at the same time, it's not hard to get into the tens of thousands of gold pieces.
Your riches are limited only by your patience.
Weapons and armor upgrades, and the associate weapons training, cost a bundle--far more than I could have made from killing enemies at 30 gold pieces a pop. I thought weapons were cheap because they started out at 80, 100, 120 gold pieces in the first few towns. But for good weapons, you need to spend many thousands. Every time I thought I'd seen the most expensive weapons, I found a shop that sold even more expensive ones. And the more expensive the weapon, the more expensive the training. You need three training sessions to get at 100% with the weapon. I wanted to keep a ranged weapon for its obvious benefits, so I finally settled on a kind of bow called a dai-kyu, which I think cost 4,000 gold pieces plus another 7,500 in training.
That was a lot of trips to the treasure rooms.
It was a long time before I found a shop selling good armor. They're not nearly as plentiful as weapon shops. I bought a set of samurai armor for 2,000, and it looks pretty elaborate on my character portrait.

Character development came from visiting the various Buddhas and solving their riddles. I eventually found my way to both of the Buddhas described last time: the "invisible maze" had a solution by walking through a false pillar, and to solve the other one, I had to purchase a yari for 4,000 gold pieces and give it to a statute.

Each of the Buddhas poses a multiple-choice question about the game's lore, and I'm honestly confused about the whole thing even though I got some of them right. For instance, the Buddha in Samusa-Toshi asks: "Once there were war magicians. They fought in a warlike time. What are these wars called?" The answers were "Battles of the Shugenjas"; "Wars of Power"; "Wars of Shatun"; and "Battle of Yugure." I found the answer--Wars of Shatun--in the "story" labeled "version 3" on the Nippon Museum site. But several of the later questions had answers found in version 2 or version 4, so I'm more confused than ever about which versions were presented to the original players, and in what format.
Buddha poses a test of knowledge.
Another puzzle, having to do with the city in which the "first tree" is found, doesn't appear in any of the backstories and can only be answered by visiting that city. 
It was pretty clear when I got there.
The Buddhas I answered correctly all provided increases to my attributes--I guess. If you look at my attribute bars, you'll see that the lower portions are shaded and the upper portions are lighter. Generally, only the upper portions increased. What's the difference? At first, I thought the shaded portions represented my actual attributes as opposed to my maximums, but when I fight in combat, the unshaded portion of my health seems to disappear first, suggesting that it is real health, not theoretical health. Then I thought that the shaded portions simply represented my starting attributes, so I could easily see how far I'd come, except that the shaded portion of "agility" increased at some point. So in the end, I really have no idea what's happening.

Experience points also continue to be a mystery. I gain them with every battle, but what do they do? Why can't I see how many I have? Do they affect the attribute increases conferred by the Buddhas? Do they do anything? Seriously, I'll take explicit spoilers at this point.

The game apparently has a few skills for you to learn. In a dense forest in Kokuso-Do, I met a man who taught me the "Hide" skill, which will supposedly make it even easier to elude enemies. Learning the skill added yet another menu icon. There's also apparently a "Swim" skill to learn in the city of Mizu-Do (which I have not yet found). I need it to visit the Buddha in Hayashi-Tori, among other locations. I might have missed another potential skill in Hayagake-Do, where a monk said I could learn to stay awake for a long time, but then didn't give me any way to do that. There was also a Buddha in the city that wouldn't respond to me no matter where I burned incense in front of him.

Part of my time was spent tracking down special items. I can't remember exactly where I first got a lead on a magic ring. It had been stolen and re-stolen from so many NPCs that I lost track, but I ultimately traced it to Bakamana in Namazaki. When I spoke to her--she had been cursed to stand still by witches--she told me that she hid it on a "rocky island north of here." That island is unfortunately fully enclosed by mountains, as well as surrounded by water, so I'll need some flight mechanism.

In Hayashi-Tori, I learned of the Stone of Toshi, hidden in the far corner of the forest. It wasn't too hard to find the spot. When used, the stone reveals the entire surrounding area, even if the tiles would have been obscured by trees or mountains. 
Most of this area would normally be dark because of the trees. (My character has no clothes because I had to give up my outfit to a statue.)
A common theme is for little bluish statues to demand an object to allow passage to otherwise-inaccessible areas. Most statues, when you stand on them and search, are unremarkable. But a few demand something. I lost my suit of clothes in Hayashi-Tori to reach the center island, for instance. There was the one that wanted a yari to show the way to the Buddha. Others have wanted specific food items. I have a "to do" item to return to Kokuso-Do when I have a honeycomb.
"Thank you. Go freely," a statue says, opening the way southward, after I give it a fish.
Only late in the game did I make any kind of progress with a potential magic system. I gather you have to find the game's half dozen spells on individual scrolls. In Haygake-Do, an NPC named Fuji-San said he made a counterspell to work against witches, and I could find it on an island west of the city. I did find the location, but when I searched, the game just said I found something but couldn't use it now.

Some time later, in the town of Teijnashi, I met a sensei named En-No-Gyoja who taught me zaubern, which translates either as "conjuration" specifically or "magic" generically.
"All wizards start" with this sensei, so perhaps I needed to learn from him before I could learn any other magic?
I got a new icon, but nothing shows up when I try to use it. I wonder if I need to go back to the island and search for the scroll again, or whether there are different types of magic, and I need the right types before the associated scrolls will work.
Learning zaubern.
As for the plot, despite all the discussions with NPCs, I still only have threads. I'm sure the endgame is going to have something to do with the Wheel of Time I found on one of the northern islands. It allows you to set a year, month, and day. I fooled around with it but kept dying "in the course of time," so I assume something is necessary to protect the player from the ravages of time travel before you can fiddle with it.
Setting things randomly turned out to be a bad idea.
In Tsusho-Jo, I met King O-sama Siramoto and his court. He was depressed after losing his daughter, Princess Kikoro, to Emperor Subarashii. This is the story related in the game's backstories, and I suspect I'm going to have to go back in time to prevent the marriage.

There was something going on with the entire northeast island, containing the cities of Fuko-Mura and Yugure, as well as a pool of lava on a western peninsula. I learned in Fuko-Mura that the volcano had recently erupted because a careless wizard messed around with it. The eruption destroyed the other two cities on the island, including Yugure. Yugure, in turn, was populated by floating heads who proudly announced that they served a demon and were planning to conquer the world.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The world has an edge, like Ultima VI, and if you sail too close, the currents pull your ship over it. 
My character spends forever in the void.
  • I kept meeting "horse doctors" who offered grooming services. I have yet to find a place that sells a horse.
  • My slave, who just sits in my inventory, apparently allows me to carry an extra weapon and armor set. I also bought a guard dog who watches over me while I sleep and prevents me from getting attacked in the night. 
  • I found two mountains that appear to have some kind of force field across their tops.
Preventing the volcano from blowing?
  • I'm not going to test everyone's patience by repeatedly complaining about it, but I also don't want my silence to be taken as a sign that I've come to terms with the joystick-only interface. It is a constant and unnecessary pain.
  • In some cities, I've found masses of what look like teleporters, as in the image below, but they don't seem to do anything.
This is where a (L)ook command would come in handy.
In probably the most interesting and yet useless adventure, I discovered a "town" called Ulti-Toril on one of the western islands. The interior of the town was shaped like Sosaria in Ultima III, and NPCs stood at the locations of cities, dungeons, and special encounters in that game, relating information about those locations and the roles they played in Ultima. I didn't find anything actually useful in the city (although I was unable to speak to Exodus; I suspect I need to "Swim" skill), but it was a fun homage.
An NPC represents the castle of Lord British and explains what happened there.
I started this series of entries wondering if the developers really did base their approach on Ultima. This city at least makes it clear that they played it.
Though they were incapable of actually depicting the silver snake.
That's about all I learned in 16 hours of exploration and note-taking, and in some ways I remain more confused than ever. But I'm committed to exploring the second half of the world and seeing if things become any clearer. I am somewhat curious to see how it all plays out.

Time so far: 16 hours

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Ultima Underworld: Let Me Level with You (Part 2)

I obtain my first non-broken talisman.
I don't remember exactly where Zak is, but I do remember he's with the dwarves. I find him after a few minutes and offer to barter with him. He has one item labeled a "taper." It's not explicitly called the "Taper of Sacrifice," but I assume that's what it is and trade him five gold nuggets for it.
Back I go to Level 4. I return to the trolls and ask Lakshi about Lorne. He tells me that Lorne set up the ankh shrine in the next chamber. That's when I realize I already have the Writ of Lorne from my previous visit. I take it back to Dorna, who makes me a knight of the Order and gives me a plate helm. As my next quest, he asked me to retrieve a golden plate from the Maze of Silas.
He clearly didn't notice I was already wearing a plate helm.
Having already explored the perimeter of the level, I now start filling in the middle areas. Near the knights' outpost, an outcast named Oradinar talks to me about fishing, but I already have a rod and know how to fish, so it's mostly a waste of time. In a chamber I previously walked through in the dark, I find An and Jux runes, the former of which I didn't already have. I'm briefly happy that I can now make An Nox ("Cure Poison"), but then I realize I don't have Nox.
In a southeast chamber, I find a sack containing a mysterious note written to the troll Lakshi:
I am willing to discuss with you the possibility of your performing a small service for me, which in the end would be beneficial to ourselves and the Abyss as a whole. If you could have several of your subjects do some small favors for me, I would be indebted to you from quite some time.
The note isn't signed, but I wonder if it isn't from whoever sent the troll to kidnap Arial. Unfortunately, no keyword I can think of gets a reaction out of Lakshi.
Not all trolls are friendly.
Not far from the civilized troll area, I find a hostile, feral troll. I win the combat, but at the cost of more than half my vitality. In the next room there's another one, and he kills me. On a reload, I head back to the ankh shrine to spent my two slots on "Sword" and "Defense," angry that I still don't have the matra for "Lore." However, it occurs to me that I can cast Ort Wis Ylem ("Name Enchantment") to identify items. It works with the silver ring I found last time--it turns out to be a Ring of Leap--but the spell takes almost all of my mana.

I defeat the second troll this time. For some reason, he leaves two skulls when he dies. His chamber has a red potion and a wand. There's no consistency in the colors of potions in this game. Green might be health, mana, cure poison, poison, or levitate. I'm carrying about six of them. I really need to start identifying things faster.

I meet an outcast named Linnet, who was tossed in here for a murder, only he claims he's innocent: "I never struck him. I merely held him down whilst my brother kicked him. He should not have treated our sister as he did. And only a weak man could perish from such slight injuries." I have the option to point out that that still makes him a murderer, but I'm polite and he tells me that he heard Arial is going to be sacrificed on one of the lower levels.
Avatar, you're from the twentieth century. Enough with the "methinks" and "thou art."
What's particularly amusing is that Linnet has a note in his chambers:
I, Baron Almric, hereby condemn thee to the Abyss. At morn tomorrow, thou wilt be brouht to the entrance of the cave and released. If thou ever dost return, thou will be considered innocent. Until then, thou art guilty in the eyes of the land.

Do you maybe see a bit of a loophole in this verdict? First, it doesn't say he has to enter the Abyss. Second, even if he does, it doesn't say he hast to go to the bottom and back up or anything. He could just stand by the door and wait for Almric to open it again to throw in yet another prisoner.

There are lots of related issues. Are the goblins, trolls, lizardmen, dwarves, and knights actually trapped here? What if they all marched to the entrance and demanded to be let out? The question is left unanswered by both the material and the NPCs themselves.

Moving on, my Ring of Leap apparently allows for extra long and extra high jumps, so dropping off ledges is no longer inevitably irreversible. I use it to jump into an alcove high on the wall of one room, which leads to a long passage ending at a secret door, which opens to a small room with another An rune and a note saying "Finally, I can cast Curse! Now, to find a way out of this pit." The bones in the chamber suggest the author never did.
This is going to be handy.
In the center of the level, another grating looks into the "volcanic core," and this time there's the faintest glow at the bottom. I assume it will get brighter as I descend.
This would be a convenient waste-disposal method, if nothing else.
I clear more and more rooms around the center. In one, I find mushrooms, a full lantern, a book called Diary of a Seer Who Was Embarking on a Troll-Watching Journey, and a pouch with yet another An rune along with In and Quas runes. This level really wanted me to have An. There's a random gray lizardman in another chamber, but he's just a generic NPC and has nothing useful to say or trade.

A watery area takes me to an alcove with a locked chest. I bash at it for a few minutes and it bursts open, spilling a pile of 42 gold coins, a Grav stone, and a Corp stone, both of which I need. The coins I just leave there. I already have more than I can spend. A secret door off of this alcove leads to a room with a "serviceable" long sword, so I replace my short sword.
Oddly, my short sword was not damaged.
Before seeking the Chaos Knight, I explore an area to the east that requires me to drop off a ledge. I have to kill a skeleton at the base. The room consists of four columns, each activated by a switch on the wall, each elevating me higher in the room. The long jumps allowed by the Ring of Leap are necessary to get from column to column. At the top, I find a small niche with a gold chain and a wand.
This pole has really come in handy.
Finally, I head to the Chaos Knight's area. It's a large room swarming with mongbats, rats, slimes, and rotworms, all of which I kill. The room is strewn with piles of gold pieces, and since I find two down staircases nearby, I decide to add my own pile and finally alleviate some of my weight.
I don't think NPCs in this game are capable of picking up items.
Sir Rodrick is at the north end of the large chamber, past a bridge running overhead. He's accompanied by a wolf spider, but the spider is oddly tagged as "mellow" and never loses its cool, even when I'm fighting Rodrick.
Rodrick, learn from your pet.
"Ha! Another one has come to be defeated by the Chaos Knight!" Rodrick says. He's not bluffing. Even though I run out of the room and return only when I'm healed, he absolutely takes me apart. I die my fifth death in the game.
I really have to get around to planting that seed.
On a reload, I blast him with a "Fireball" scroll as soon as combat starts, then spend a lot of time running around the room, avoiding his attacks while blasting him with all of the wands that I've been collecting. He absorbs over a dozen "Magic Missiles" and "Lightning Bolts." When the last wand has cracked, I draw my long sword and face him in melee combat--and kill him with the first blow.
The aftermath.
Killing him puts me at Level 12. Finally. I gained 11 levels on the previous three dungeon levels, but this is my first level-up on Level 4. He drops some gold, a key, and a jeweled long sword, which frankly sounds worse than a regular long sword, but I suspect it's better and thus replace my regular one.

Beyond Rodrick are two doors, one east and one west. The eastern one leads to the "bullfrog puzzle," which as the knights promised, consists of two levers, each capable of 9 positions, and two buttons. These switches are situated next to a vast, empty floor ringed by water. High on the wall in the northeast is a corridor leading out of the chamber.

Some experimentation with the levers and buttons reveals the nature of the puzzle. If you think of the empty floor as a grid of squares, one lever controls the columns and one controls the rows. You set the levers and then hit the top button to raise the square at the intersection of the indicated column and row. You hit the lower button to lower the square.
I make a mess of the area figuring out how it works.
It takes me a while, but by raising the right combination, I create a ramp that will (in conjunction with my Ring of Leap--this must be why they call it the "bullfrog" puzzle) take me to the corridor. It simply leads to a stairway down, but I suspect this is an otherwise-inaccessible area of Level 5. I make a note to explore it later.

While I'm marking the map, I note what looks like a second corridor or alcove on the southeast side of the chamber. When I view it in the game itself, it just looks like a blank wall. But then earlier hints come to me: "there is more than meets the eye"; "the heights of the north have a hidden counterpart"; "to pass into the unseen, jump through the seen." Sure enough, after I reconfigure the platforms to try, I'm able to jump through an illusory wall to a chamber beyond, where I find a wand and another orb like the one on Level 2.
Looking into the orb shows me a second mysterious scene: a couple of mages in blue robes wandering around an empty stone chamber. I have no idea what these orbs are about.
Quest of the Avoyeurtar.
The western door from Rodrick's chamber leads to the Maze of Silas, which is pretty pathetic for a maze. It's basically just a crooked loop. Gold nuggets are strewn across the floor, and I collect them but later leave them in a pile. True to the clues received among the knights, there are multiple secret doors. One of them leads to a door with a silver switch on one side and a gold switch on the other: the Door of Precious Levers.
The headstones back in the Crux Ansata area held the answer to the door. I'm glad I took screenshots. The letters i on the two headstones are dotted with gold and silver dots, three on each stone, and in order they're silver-gold-gold-silver-silver-gold. I flip the levers and the door opens to the resting chamber of Sir Inguar. Within is a headstone, his eulogy, and the "gold plate."
I confess I was expecting gold plate mail.
On the way back to Dorna Ironfist, I stop and see Biden, who's overjoyed that the Chaos Knight is dead and he can go home. Dorna gives me the Standard of Honor for defeating Rodrick.
Aren't you guys from Jhelom? Shouldn't you have the whatever of valor? Honor comes from the paladins of Trinsic.
For returning the gold plate, he opens the armory and tells me to take my pick of the weapons and armor within. I end this session paralyzed with indecision, as I only have a few pounds of carrying capacity to spare, and I'm surrounded by plate everything.
Do I really need this rune bag?
From my experience, I'm guessing that joining the knights is optional because you don't technically need those rewards. I suspect I could have killed them all and looted the Standard of Honor (if a bit perversely).  I have four potential ways down to Level 5.
The complete--or, at least, close to complete--Level 4.
Summary: Finished exploring Level 4. Defeated the Chaos Knight. Became a Knight of the Crux Ansata. Solved the bullfrog puzzle, the Maze of Silas, the Door of Precious Levers, and some other jumping puzzles. Ended up with two artifacts: The Taper of Sacrifice and the Standard of Honor. Still over-encumbered. On to Level 5.

Time so far: 16 hours