Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chaos Strikes Back: Hard for Hard's Sake

Unavoidable pits and teleportation fields (this one moves) characterize Chaos Strikes Back.

It would be difficult for me to overemphasize--and this should come as no surprise to my regular readers--exactly how much this is not my kind of game. I like CRPGs for the stories, NPCs, role-playing opportunities, tactical combat, economies, and quests, none of which are really present in Chaos Strikes Back

Instead, this game offers a series of things that would make me tear out my hair if I had any hair to begin with. This game is about navigational obstacles. Force fields, secret doors, pits, pressure plates, grates, teleportation fields, one-way doors, spinners, and every other trick to obfuscate mapping are present in joyous excess. There are people that practically wet themselves with glee over this kind of challenge, but it's just not my thing. I realize that doesn't make the game objectively "bad."

The beginning of the game leaves me with lots of worm meat.
 
To illustrate, consider the opening sections of the game. I start in a roughly 7 x 7 room with several giant worms nearby. They're not hard to take care of as long as I avoid the pressure plate that generates more of them every time I step on it. There's a secret door leading off this room to some armor, which is nice, and force fields preventing access to some alcoves with various bits of equipment. Coins in the room, inserted into slots next to the force field, lower them--but there aren't enough to lower all of them, so I have to choose carefully (in my restart, I chose to get a sword and ignore the FUL bombs).

I did take the magic boxes. I remember how useful they were.
 
A key opens a grate, but to pass it, I have to step on the pressure plate, creating more worms in my backpath. Three steps south and several steps west, and I'm in a long corridor ending in a T-junction with a pit in the middle of the junction. A pressure plate in the corridor briefly closes the pit, so I use it to skirt the pit and dart north, but I find myself blocked by another pit. There's a pressure plate on the other side, but I can't reach it (throwing worm rounds at it just sends the worm rounds sailing down the corridor). With no choice but to fall down one of the pits, I choose the one ahead of me.

Trying to hurl bits of worm onto the pressure plate proves fruitless.
 
I find myself in a 3 x 3 area. There's an exit to the west, two squares wide, but one of the squares is a pit and the other is a pressure plate. When I step on the plate, a teleportation field rises in front of me. Having to choose either that or the pit, I find myself transported to an unknown area, standing on top of a spinner that resolutely keeps facing me to the north. I walk two steps and find that the corridor has closed behind me. A few steps east and north, and I'm on a trap that throws endless daggers at me--which I suppose is a good thing because hey, free daggers.

I haven't been able to figure out the meaning of the message yet.
 
At that point, no more than a 20 steps from where I started the game, I have faced one secret door, four force fields, four pressure plates, two pits, a teleportation field, a spinner, a one-way corridor, and a trap. I'm thoroughly lost.

Are the slots on the wall anything I should be concerned with?

The unknown level served up monsters who were a bit too tough for me, so I went the only way I could and dropped down to a lower one. I've actually got a fair bit of that one mapped, though I keep getting swarmed by giant worms and I still don't have any idea where I am.

A few other notes on navigation and gameplay:

  • Secret doors can be found by clicking on the walls; if there's a secret door there, it doesn't make a sound. This is preferable to my usual method of walking into the wall because my characters are too stupid to walk into walls gently. The run into them at full speed and take several hit points damage.
  • The compass (one of the items I found in the starting area) is broken. If I'm facing north and turn right it shows me facing west instead of east. I'm not sure whether the north/south or east/west directional is the one that's broken, but I've been assuming that north is correct. I may be mapping everything upside down. [Later edit: as pointed out in this comment thread, the compass is behaving the way actual compasses behave: always pointing north. I'm too used to CRPG compasses that point in the direction you're facing.]
  • I'm reminded about one of the things I hated the most about Dungeon Master: you have no clue what kind of armor class you're getting from armor, what kind of damage different weapons do, or the effects of things like rings, brooches, and amulets. In the early game, that's not a big problem because it's clear that the mail aketon outperforms the tunic, but as I start having to make more choices between bits of equipment, the lack of any statistics or description is annoying.

It's great to know the mail aketon's weight, but what kind of protection does it offer?
 
  • I also forgot how annoying it is to have a couple characters hurl braces of daggers at an opponent, then have to pick them up.

The pile of throwing items I need to pick up after every combat.
 
  • Torches don't seem to last as long as in Dungeon Master, or else I just forgot how quickly they burned out.
  • I only have one decent weapon at this point, and I'm finding that my melee and throwing attacks are almost entirely ineffective against every creature I face. I keep using copious fireballs as my go-to strategy.

Aside from the navigation difficulty, the monsters I've encountered so far have been pretty hard, too--primarily because of my lack of equipment. I keep finding paths I cannot progress down not because the  The armored figures below slaughter me mercilessly. Maybe I should have spent more time grinding against the respawning worms.



There are secondary elements to the game that I find fun. I like the idea of starting with extremely limited equipment and slowly piecing together a motley inventory; I just wish the game had come up with some plausible explanation for why I entered the dungeon naked. I still admire the combat system of the game (see my posting on the original here), even if I generally prefer turn-based combat.

The rock monsters are back. Note Leyla's selection of possibilities with the sword.
 
I liked but didn't love the original Dungeon Master, and with the admiration I had for the first game, I have to agree with what Corey Cole said about this one: "I felt that FTL made CSB 'hard for hard's sake' and lost the great game balance and progressive challenge that characterized [Dungeon Master]." Nonetheless, I'll try to play it to the end and see if I can get into the game's groove, or see if it throws any surprises at me.

You may see a few NetHack postings in here, though. I've been playing a little NetHack every week and getting progressively better. I feel like I'll soon be able to report that I've at least seen the Amulet of Yendor even if I don't escape the dungeon with it.

Finally, I should note that as this game is simply an extension of Dungeon Master, I probably won't spend a lot of time discussing the controls and conventions in detail. I strongly recommend that you take a look at my series of postings on the first game if you want to know more about the interface and gameplay.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Readers Spoil Me

My recent breaking of my one-post-every-two-days streak (since mid-November) was not because of the difficulty of Chaos Strikes Back but because of a little side-trip to Frenchmen Street. I'll try to get some spelunking done today. 

In the meantime, please take this with the affection with which I intend it.

****

The Sci-Fi Film Addict
Movie 58: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

You all know how much I liked Star Wars. I'm really looking forward to this one, and I hope it's as good as the original. Certainly, the opening title crawl and music show that the creators kept intact some of the best features of its predecessor. I don't really understand the "Episode V" part, though. Where are the other three films?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to watching and blogging about this one.


25 Comments

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 7:32 AM
Remember, guys: NO SPOILERS!

BradburyFan   January 17, 2013, 7:55 AM
I said it with Star Wars and I'll say it again: these films are not science fiction.

MothmasMons   January 17, 2013, 8:04 AM
Wow, I can't imagine what it must be like to watch this movie for the first time. I wish I could be you. It's so amazing.

SuPadreAEl   January 17, 2013, 9:36 AM
Addict, no spoilers here, but I want to tell you to be especially alert towards the end of the film. There's a MAJOR plot twist and you're going to be totally amazed. You don't want to miss it!

MothmasMons   January 17, 2013 9:38 AM
I can't wait to see his reaction to that.

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 10:04 AM
Just in case you're wondering, the moment MothmasMons is talking about occurs towards the end of this big battle between two of the main characters in the Cloud City.

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 10:15 AM
No spoilers!

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 10:20 AM
What? He doesn't even know what "Cloud City" is yet.

Elseuparees   January 17, 2013 10:33 AM
Right. Watch carefully when there's this big wind and equipment starts flying through the air and this one guy gets knocked through a window.

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 10:20 AM
If you hear a character shout, "No! That's not true! That's impossible!" and you didn't notice anything before that, you missed it.

DarthAnakin   January 17, 2013 10:38 AM
Wow, I remember when I saw that the first time. It was amazing. I turned to my friend and said, "No way. Qnegu Inqre vf Yhxr'f sngure!"

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 10:40 AM
Okay, guys, that's enough.

FoboBett   January 17, 2013, 10:55 AM
@BradburyFan, what do you mean it's not sci-fi? It has space, lasers, and aliens. That's two of the Sci-Fi Film Addict's three criteria!

IkParafraseren   January 17, 2013 11:07 AM
The big moment starts with, "Luke, I am...." and then...well, I won't spoil it for you.

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 11:12 AM
But you should definitely get a strong paterfamilias vibe.

BradburyFan   January 17, 2013, 11:25 AM
@FoboBett, because it's not about technology. It's fundamentally about magic. The technology doesn't even really make sense.
 
MexiFriki   January 17, 2013 11:35 AM
No! That drives me crazy! The line is, "NO. I am your father," not "Luke, I am your father."

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 11:40 AM
Guys!!!!!!!

MexiFriki   January 17, 2013 11:42 AM
What? Ditissypa already spoiled it.

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 11:44 AM
Only if he speaks Latin.

LinusTiberius   January 17, 2013 11:55 AM
The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is a much-debated subject. One common dividing line, however, is that science fiction is about scientific and technological advancements that could reasonably occur in the future, while fantasy exists only in the realm of imagination.

Much of Star Wars does deal with advanced technology, which seems to put it in the realm of science fiction. We may not have hyperdrives that allow for interstellar travel, but we can easily see manned spaceships that travel to other planets as a natural progression from traveling to the moon and sending unmanned probes to other planets in our solar system. Some of the technology in Star Wars is not even that far off; for example, scientists have already been able to create miniature lightsaber-like devices.

The existence of the Force, however, makes Star Wars seem more like fantasy than science fiction. The Force is a mystical energy field which gives Jedi seemingly magical powers, and the study of the Force is more like a religion than a science. The idea of midi-chlorians, microorganisms in the blood, attempts to provide a scientific explanation for the Force; but even midi-chlorians cannot explain how the Force can make bodies disappear or allow beings to become ghosts after death.

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 12:07 AM
At least can we not spoil what we find out in the next movie?

MexiFriki   January 17, 2013 12;09 AM
But knowing that spoiler is actually kind of important for this movie, because it helps him interpret a key scene.

Ditissypa   January 17, 2013 12:15 AM
Right. Twincest!

HanMucho   January 17, 2013 12:23 AM
Jesus, guys.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Game 84: Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back (1989)



Chaos Strikes Back is not Dungeon Master II; that game won't come out until 1993 and will be subtitled Skullkeep. It is instead billed as an expansion to the original game, using the same engine and continuing the same characters.

You'll recall that Dungeon Master (which I played in 2010) concerns a godlike wizard called the Grey Lord. One day, while messing around with something called the Power Gem, the Grey Lord managed to split himself into two halves: Lord Order and Lord Chaos, both evil. Chaos, in possession of the Grey Lord's Firestaff, started causing mischief in the depths of the titular dungeon. Lord Order, stuck outside, commissioned a series of adventurers to go get the Firestaff back. The consciousness of Theron, the Grey Lord's apprentice, guided the victorious group of adventurers through the dungeon's depths and recovered the staff--but instead of returning it to Order (which produced a "bad" ending) used it to fuse Order and Chaos together into the Grey Lord once again.

A short introduction, again penned by Nancy Holder, sets up the expansion. Thirteen months have passed since the end of Dungeon Master, and a mystery from the end of the first game is solved: the party's victory has not only joined the two halves of the Grey Lord but has also restored Theron to corporeal form. But now the Grey Lord is sick, being drawn apart by his two halves again, and has called the original adventurers to his castle.

It transpires that Lord Chaos foresaw his defeat and planned for it. He built a secret dungeon, and using the evil Forge of Fulya (or FUL YA, the runic symbols for "fire" and "structure"), mined four large chunks of Corbum ore. (The author is clearly confused about both mining and forges.) Corbum sucks magic from the world, and somehow it's drawing the essence of Lord Chaos out of the Grey Lord again, while simultaneously causing stuff like earthquakes and storms. If the ore finishes the job and Chaos lives again as a separate entity, he will "rule--or misrule--the world and all others." There's no mention about what Order will do in such a scenario.

But in an ironic twist, Chaos doesn't know that after the ore does its work, he needs to destroy it; otherwise, "it will shatter the universe like a fragile looking glass." My mission is to enter the secret dungeon, find the chunks of Corbum within something called the "Death Square," and destroy them. Each chunk is at the end of a long maze converging on the Square, so I'll have to explore four mazes. Each of the mazes is somehow aspected to one of the four classes: warrior, ninja, wizard, and priest.

I imported my party members from Dungeon Master, but like the previous game, there's an option to select adventurers from "life mirrors" on a special dungeon level. Oddly, many of these adventurers--unlike mine and the others in the first game--are bestial, with forms like insects, fairies, toads, birds, and centaurs. As interesting as it would be to play such creatures, I noticed that most of their levels are "adept" and "expert," with hit points and spell points averaging around 200, while my Dungeon Master characters were almost all at expert level in all four classes, with up to 400 hit points or spell points.

The game takes a slight retconning liberty by introducing a hawk PC.

My relatively high-level party doesn't mean the game starts out easy. For no reason that is explained in the introductory story, my party begins in darkened room with no weapons, armor, or other gear, surrounded by those worm-monsters from the first game. Fortunately, I haven't forgotten the handy spell sequence that lets me launch "Fireball" spells.

Fireballing worms in the dark.

Even with the worms defeated, though, all of my characters are poisoned, and we have no flasks with which to mix up "Cure Poison" spells. There are coins on the floor that, when inserted into slots on the walls, open force fields and allow access to some equipment. We grab some stuff, including some offensive potions (which the game won't let us drink), but no flasks. While I'm trying to figure things out, the worms suddenly respawn. Trying to escape them, we use a key in a lock and rush down a corridor. There are pressure plates and pits, and soon we're lost in a room, surrounded by hovering demons that surround and kill us.


So this game is kind of hard, huh?

I originally had some angst about whether to carry my Dungeon Master spell knowledge forward, but not any more; I need every advantage I can get. In a restart, I determine that the opening area has a lot more equipment than I originally found. There are three force fields that take one coin each and one that takes two. There are only three coins on the level, which means I can't open one or two of the fields. The one that takes two coins has a sword behind it.

The poison eventually wears off, and in any event, doesn't damage my party members faster than their natural regeneration restores the lost hit points, so finding flasks isn't quite the priority that I thought. I make it out of the first area with a dagger, some torches, a chest full of clothing items, a rope, some worm meat, some fire bombs, and a couple of magic boxes. No decent weapons, so I'll be relying on my ninja skills for now. I'm glad I took the time to train everyone.

Mapping proves difficult. I'm not sure which of the four mazes I'm in--or if I'm just in an introductory area--but every four or five steps, the game likes to throw a teleporter, a pressure plate, a force field, or a pit at me.

In short, this game is clearly (at least, so far) about navigation-based puzzles and surviving with limited resources. What I'm not sure about is whether the rhetoric from the Grey Lord about needing to hurry really means anything--that is, if there's a time limit.

Leyla's inventory after a short time playing.

Chaos Strikes Back was never released officially for the PC, only for the Amiga, the Atari ST, and various Japanese PCs. At the recommendation of trudodyr and others, I'm playing a I'm playing a Windows port created in 2001 by fans, based on the Atari ST version. The port lacks a utility that allowed players to edit their character portraits, and it lacks a long game intro that shows Chaos mining the Corbum and creating a coin to taunt the Grey Lord (you can watch it on YouTube), but otherwise it's reportedly faithful to the original.

It's interesting to be back in this interface again after two years. 


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Game 83: Dungeon Campaign (1978)


When studying the earliest CRPGs, it's fun to see the little quirks and imaginative variations that developers devised without any kind of standard template. It makes every CRPG from this era, if primitive, unique. With Space (1978), we had an unusual approach to character creation and text-based role playing. Beneath Apple Manor (1978) gave us randomly-generated, customized levels, a wide range of difficulty options, and a set of magic items that appeared only once (though randomly distributed) in the dungeon. Temple of Apshai had those wonderfully useful room descriptions that gave some of the feeling of a real RPG, Akalabeth combined top-down and first-person views, and Rogue presented all of the characteristics that we would come to love and hate about roguelikes. Some of these characteristics continued to other games, but most of them died quietly away in mainstream CRPGs.

The main screen for Dungeon Campaign.

The unique approaches taken in Dungeon Campaign (which, like Beneath Apple Manor, is another pre-Rogue roguelike-ish game for the Apple II) include the following:

  • The game draws each of the four levels in front of you before you play. Astute players can try to sketch or memorize as much of the maze as possible before the game starts (I don't think screen captures were a possibility back then).


  • Each level has one "boss-creature" that, if it acquires you, follows you around until it reaches the party and kills one or more characters.
  • Instead of controlling a single character, you control a small army of characters, including one elf and one dwarf, who slowly deplete in number as you fight and fall victim to traps. You start with 15 soldiers, equivalent to having 15 "hit points" in another game. If the elf dies in combat, you no longer get warnings about various dangers in the dungeon; if the dwarf dies, the automap no longer updates. 

The beginning party status.

  • When you engage in combat with the enemy (accomplished by moving your colored block over the enemy's, which creates a crosshatch pattern of both block colors), you press the SPACE bar to start generating a random series of numbers between 1 and 10, then SPACE again to stop the roll. The result, multiplied against your "strength" (the number of soldiers) determines the result. The numbers go too fast to control the result.

The snake thing on the left side of the screen is this level's "boss creature," a giant snake.
 
  • There are traps at various points in the dungeon that give you a fixed number of seconds to escape their radius.

I've got two seconds to get two squares left and one square up.

As you can see from the screen shots, the game uses low-res graphics with different colors to represent the party, enemies, the boss creature, stairways, and other features. There are a few bloops for sounds, plus a cute ascending tune when you go up a staircase and a descending scale when you go down. The commands are hard to get used to: instead of directional arrows, you use (L)eft, (R)ight, (U)p, and (D)own. Movement is generally turn-based, but both the unique "boss" creatures plus the traps occur in real-time, so if you just stand around, they'll damage the party.

Every level has a copious number of pit traps that dump you to the next level. I learned the hard way to (J)ump over these traps whenever I see a warning that "danger is near!" There are other encounters that end up teleporting you to other levels or other parts of the existing level before you're quite ready.

Well, that wasn't nice.

Other than movement and jumping, the only commands are (S)earch (which never does anything for me), see the party status (X), and (E)xit the dungeon, which only works in one place.


As you fight and win combats, your characters slowly deplete in number, but your "strength" increases in multiples by every combat you win. The starting party has 15 characters and a strength of 15; if after the first battle, there are 13 characters left, the party has a strength of 26. The ultimate goal of the game seems to be to amass as much treasure as possible and find the exit on Level 4 before everyone dies. There's no way to save the game in progress, so each "campaign" is not meant to take very long.

The inevitable death screen.

For whatever reason, I can't seem to find any treasure after battles, or anywhere else, so my parties aren't doing a great job at their core missions. I have managed to make it to the exit several times, so I'm going to consider that a "won."


The game is intriguing but, to be honest, it's not much of a CRPG. It technically meets the criteria of character development and statistics-based combat, but only barely in both cases. 

Dungeon Campaign was developed by Robert Clardy and his company, the Seattle-based Synergistic (also known as Northwest Synergistic Software). This was the company's first game; it would go on to release another couple dozen before it was acquired by Sierra in 1997. Its RPG (or RPG-ish) offerings include War in Middle Earth (1988; here's my review), Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), Warriors of Legend (1993), Birthright: the Gorgon's Alliance (1996), and the Hellfire add-on to Diablo (1997).

MobyGames lists it as a 1978 game, but every other source, including the title screen and Clardy's own bio on MobyGames, puts it in 1979 [Later edit: Clardy himself cleared it up in the comments below; it's 1978]. I'm unsure about the release order when it comes to Dungeon Campaign and Wilderness Campaign. On the one playable version that I've found of either game (Virtual Apple), the games are bundled together with no umbrella heading, but Wilderness Campaign's release date is listed as 1980.

A shot from the more advanced Wilderness Campaign, a year later.

Wilderness Campaign features a similar style as its predecessor, but with a few more commands, more complex graphics, attributes (speed, strength, dexterity, and charisma), and an inventory of gold, food, and items. You explore a map full of castles, ruins, temples, tombs, and towns, with occasional earthquakes (you have to make a saving throw against dexterity) and crevices (you need a plank to cross) to keep things interesting. In every way, it's a more sophisticated game than Dungeon Campaign, which makes it a bit mysterious that it's hardly mentioned anywhere online (no Wikipedia or MobyGames entries), and I wouldn't have heard of it if I hadn't seen it as an option on the main screen of Dungeon Campaign. I was originally going to play it as part of this entry, but it's complex enough to deserve its own.

The same year that Wilderness Campaign came out, Synergistic repackaged and expanded both games as Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (and no, neither of those latter two words are typos), a game for which MobyGames curiously has no entry, but Wikipedia has a long write-up. I look forward to giving this a try as well.

This is the third time I've interrupted my regular chronology with a one-shot review of an early non-DOS game, so I should explain what I'm doing. I've decided that my initial decision to stay fixed to the DOS/PC platform was wrong, and I'm correcting that mistake by going back and playing some of the most important games released for other platforms. If you think this means that I'll eventually hit your favorite non-DOS entry from the 1980s, don't get too excited: I don't think I'll be playing every one (in particular, I suspect I'll continue to eschew consoles). This will give me, and us, a more rounded sense of the history of CRPGs and prepare me better for my first book.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Curse of the Azure Bonds: Final Rating





Curse of the Azure Bonds 
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for DOS, Apple II, and C64; 1990 for Amiga and Macintosh; 1991 for Atari ST and PC-98
Date Started: 25 December 2012
Date Ended: 7 January 2013
Total Hours: 21
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 60
Ranking at Time of Posting: 79/83 (95%)


So far in the history of CRPGs, we have only seen a handful of games with sequels. They include:

  • Ultima
  • Wizardry
  • The Bard's Tale
  • Phantasie
  • Questron (including Legacy of the Ancients)
  • Might & Magic
  • Shard of Spring/Demon's Winter
  • Pool of Radiance/Curse of the Azure Bonds

Which of these things is not like the other? It's Ultima. Every other franchise, so far, has featured essentially the same game engine between games, with perhaps some minor improvements in graphics, sound, and the interface. There have been variances in the quality of updating--Wizardry is indistinguishable from Wizardry V, while Might & Magic had some more significant changes--but generally speaking, each game in these series "feels" like it's part of the series. Ultima remains the curious exception throughout its history: they reinvented the game engine for every iteration (with the exception of the two Worlds of Ultima spinoffs from Ulima VI).

Naturally, then, the games in each franchise have very similar ratings. Wizardry I, II, III, and V are all within one point of each other. The variance between the two Might & Magic games is 2 points; the three Bards Tales are within 3 points; the Phantasies are exactly the same. It's to be expected. With the same (or almost the same) game engine, there are limited ways that a game can significantly improve (or screw up). We did see it in Demon's Winter, which had a significantly better story, less linearity, better NPCs, and more role-playing than Shard of Spring despite looking and feeling very similar.

I'm saying all of this to explain why I don't think my rating for Curse of the Azure Bonds is going to look much different than my rating for Pool of Radiance. Curse feels like what it is: a continuation of Pool. I'm writing what appears below without reviewing my Pool of Radiance final rating, but off the top of my head, there were a few interface elements I liked better in Curse but a better story and side-quests in Pool, and I'd be surprised if they don't end up with almost identical final scores.

1. Game World. This franchise is unique in that it takes place in a much larger game world with an enormously detailed history and lore, thanks to countless books, game manuals, magazine articles, modules, and other computer games. Each time you fire up a game set in the Forgotten Realms, you're amid a host of references and allusions to history, characters, and legends. There's nothing comparable to it in this era of CRPGs except perhaps the one BattleTech game.

I have to say, though, that I don't find the Forgotten Realms very compelling. It feels like there's too much in the setting--too many lands, too many races, too many monsters, too many gods. Every type of monster and mythology that could exist does exist; everything that could happen has happened; every plot twist has already been twisted. I was recently playing Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone which concerns a Githyanki general and a Slaad lord vying to see which one of them is going to lay waste to Faerûn. It's supposed to feel epic, but I wanted to tell them, "Guys, you're going to have to get in line behind about three thousand other arch-wizards, demons, gods' spawn, cult leaders, shadow druids, ancient lizard people, Drow matrons, disaffected half-breeds, dragon kings, fallen deities, and interlopers from other planes."

The Dalelands are only a small part of a much bigger world.
 
What the Realms lacks is a strong "core," like spice in Dune or the Force in Star Wars. Some of D&D's other settings have that core: Ravenloft's gothic horror, Dark Sun's dying earth, Planescape's "rules."

On the other hand, it's a good place to set a generic high-fantasy adventure, and once you're familiar with the way things work in the Realms, you can carry that knowledge to dozens of other games. Black dragons breathe acid, basilisks stun you, a platinum piece is worth 5 gold pieces, paladins are lawful good and can lay on hands, thieves can't wear metal armor, gnolls are evil, you can trust Elminster, and anything to do with Bane is bad--no matter whether you're playing Cures of the Azure Bonds, Eye of the Beholder, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, or Icewind Dale.

I'm going to talk about the ties to the book at the end, but aside from Azure Bonds, the creators did a great job outlining the political situation of the area, the history of the Dalelands, and the nature of the various factions. With the possible exception of Tyranthraxus, it makes sense that these five power groups have entered into this uneasy alliance to bond the party for their own ends.

The game also does a good job evolving the world. When you first start playing, and you have all of the bonds on your arms, factions allied against Zhentil Keep treat you rudely and sometimes even attack you. (My party needed to be told about something called "long sleeves.") After you finish Zhentil Keep and lose the bond, those factions become friendly--but Zhent troops now have you on their "Wanted" list and attack on sight. After Silk made my ranger a Swanmay, several characters commented on it. River pirates remain cowed and stop attacking after you kill some of them. In a couple places, the game takes the convenient way out and simply blocks you from returning to places, but overall, it makes you feel like you're effecting permanent changes on the Dalelands. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. Curse did a good turn by introducing the paladin and ranger classes, and by introducing dual classes. The character system is otherwise indistinguishable from every other D&D game. As with Pool, I liked the ability to customize the icon. (We lost the character portraits, but they were goofy anyway.) My biggest complaint here is the lack of advancement. Imported characters from Pool of Radiance might only be able to advance three or four levels over the course of gameplay. The level caps ensured that my characters maxed well before the end of the game. There is no way to role-play alignments, classes, or races--the latter of which is a good thing, since the literal adaptation of first-edition rules means that you probably don't want anything but humans anyway. But for the few levels that you have, it feels good to get extra attacks and spells, higher backstab multipliers, and other benefits. Score: 6.

My winning mage was a victim of her own "Haste" spells.
 
3. NPC Interaction. There are about as many NPCs in Curse as in Pool, with the difference that many of the ones in this game were drawn from the Azure Bonds book. There are no dialogue options with NPCs, but the game does retain the "attitude" system, which sometimes works (rakshasa leave you alone if you're "haughty"), and there are frequently options other than dialogue.

I missed the hirelings from Pool of Radiance, and I wish there were more NPCs in this game that you could actually take into your party. But the few that do join you have interesting things to say about themselves and the environments. Score: 6.

4. Encounters and Foes. One thing I can say about the Forgotten Realms is that it has an interesting menagerie of creatures, and this game featured an awful lot of them--the manual lists about 40. The developers did a good job programming each monster's unique attacks, although as we discussed, the AI sometimes isn't up to par with these abilities. Having played about a billion hours in Forgotten Realms games, I didn't have to look up descriptions of my foes, but the manual did have them, with even an assessment of their relative difficulty levels (dogs are lowest, dracoliches highest).

 
(Just as an aside: it occurs to me that aside from the dracolich, there isn't a single undead in this game. That's a little unusual for a D&D game.)

The quality of the pre-combat and non-combat encounters was on par with Pool of Radiance, which makes it better than most of the games of the era. I liked the little choices: attack the dragon horde or talk with them; loot the crypts or restore them; punch the bartender or buy a drink; burn the trolls or watch them reassemble; help the rogue rakshasa prove that his comrades are cheating at gambling or just attack him; attack the hookah-smoking Drow or leave them alone. There were a dozen or so small but satisfying encounters along the roadways, including stopping an invading army, removing a displacer beast threat, and saving a farm from ettins. At the same time, though, I felt there were more cases in this game in which the choice was obvious, or the outcome was the same no matter what I chose. Score: 7.

5. Magic and Combat. I still think that the Gold Box system of combat is one of the best ever created. It has everything I like: a turn-based, tactical map; multiple attack and defense options; even some fun animations and sound. Magic is an integral part of the tactics of the game, and you need to carefully select spells to memorize and cast. Backstabbing and wiping out enemies with fireballs and lightning bolts literally never gets old.

Everything I could possibly say here is a rehash of what I said in my "Turn Based vs. Real Time" posting and my Pool of Radiance review, so I'll just conclude with the same thing I said about the first "Gold Box" game: "There are hardly any other games--ancient or modern--that achieve such a perfect blend of melee combat, spells, item use, morale, and (albeit limited) special abilities." That said, the AI limitations were more apparent in this game than its predecessor. Score: 7.

A tough beginning. These priests are capable of high-level spells and I need to damage them all quickly so they can't cast in the first round. There isn't enough space in this corridor to cast "Fireball" without hitting my own party. They're not lined up in the right way for "Lightning Bolt." "Stinking Cloud" would incapacitate maybe three of them. Since there are only five, I could try to have my party take them one-by-one in melee, but if they have better initiative, or I miss one of my attacks. at least two of my party members are getting "Hold Person" cast on them.

6. Equipment. Standard D&D fare, which is generally good. There was a wider variety of equipment in Curse than in Pool, including more rings, girdles, gauntlets, wands, and scrolls. As almost always happens, I was too conservative with my wands, and I ended the game with enough wand power to level a city. Every new map brought one or two equipment upgrades, and a few of them, like the Ring of Wizardry and the Girdle of Giant Strength, were unmitigatedly awesome. But we still don't see any detailed item descriptions, and where the heck are the helms and boots?

My ranger's final equipment list.

I must voice this complaint about this game and many others like it: all the good stuff appears in fixed locations. Why does it have to be this way? I think it would be far better if each reward cache had a random selection of the special items in the game. In the Fire Knives' hideout, you find a long sword +3 frost brand every single time. Why couldn't it occasionally be the Ring of Invisibility, or the long bow +3? It's not like there's a plot-related reason that the long sword has to be there. It would enhance replayability enormously if the items were mixed up. Score: 5.

7. Economy. Almost so bad the game might as well not have had one. Pool of Radiance had a glut in the economy, but at least you had to struggle a bit in the beginning. Curse of the Azure Bonds starts you with enough gold to buy everything in the equipment shop in Tilverton and still have enough left over for training. After that, battles and treasure hauls throw so many gold pieces, gems, and jewelry at you that you find yourself abandoning more than 90% of it--that isn't remotely an exaggeration--and you still have more than you know what to do with. The game did one thing better than Pool by including a magic shop, but even with that, I could have bought everything they stocked multiple times over. I don't understand how a game that does everything else so well could do this aspect so poorly. Score: 2.

There really isn't any point.

8. Quests. The main quest in Curse is more personal than in Pool, but it's still interesting. As with the previous game, there's a certain humility to it: your adventures take place in a small corner of the Realms, and you're basically determining the outcome of some factional strife, not saving the world.

I did like the quests in Pool better, though. The way the clerk fed them to the party, you felt like you were slowly accomplishing the revitalization of Phlan, not just hitting waypoints on the way to the final battle. Curse also doesn't have side-quests in the same way that Pool does, although it does have a few side-dungeons, including the memorable Beholder Corps. There is only one ending to the main quest, and not many quest-based role-playing choices along the way. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. No strong complaints. Once I figured out how to enable the Tandy sound, it was actually quite good. There's a certain graphical paucity to the dungeon corridors and rooms, but the monster portraits and icons are good enough. The keyboard controls were intuitive. The "Fix" command was a welcome addition, and I hope the next game straightens out some cumbersome aspects of the combat interface. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. As I discussed in my Dracandros posting, there is a refreshing nonlinearity to the gameplay. Although you have to do the Fire Knives first and Tyranthraxus last, you can do the three middle stages in any order, and intersperse those with the various optional dungeons and encounters. It doesn't have quite the same world-openness as Pool, but it's better than a lot of games.

Being too nonlinear comes with a price, and I found it in what seemed like excessive difficulty in some areas. But overall, I thought that the difficulty of the game was pitched very well. The pacing was also good; I felt it lasted exactly as long as it needed to.

As for whether it's "replayable," I'd have to say not very. By choosing a different route or different character classes, you might be able to alter the tactical challenge, but you'd have to be really into the game to want to do that. Score: 7.

The final score of 60 actually puts it 4 points below Pool of Radiance but still fairly high; only Ultima V, Pool, and The Dark Heart of Uukrul rank higher. That feels right. Fundamentally, I liked Pool of Radiance better for its story, quests, encounters, and a slightly better (if still bad) economy.

I don't know exactly what this ad is promising, but a teenaged me probably would have been disappointed.

This game throws an additional ingredient into the mix by basing itself on a specific book and introducing NPCs from that book to the game. I'm not sure how well that worked. When Nameless, Olive Ruskettle, and Akabar Bel Akash appear, the game is clearly winking at you, and you feel out of the loop if you don't know who they are. But expecting the reader to go through a 400-page book seems a little unfair. I'm not subtracting points for it, but I'm glad that not many CRPGs are based directly on books. It was a weird decision, really; surely, even when the game was new, only a fraction of the game's players would have read Azure Bonds.

I was hoping that Scorpia would corroborate the slightly "left out" feeling in her review, but she didn't mention it at all instead, in a curiously ornery review in the September 1989 Computer Gaming World, she bemoans that little has changed since Pool of Radiance, "combat still predominates," and there isn't much actual role-playing. (I'm not sure what games in this era she was playing in which there was actual role-playing.)

Best of all, though, she complains that the die rolls seem to be weighted in favor of certain monsters and against the party, and she goes into a long example involving otyughs to prove it. I was beginning to think that she might need a long vacation away from her computer, but the review is supplemented with a memo from SSI programmer Scot Bayless who says that she's right. He explains that they included hit and damage modifiers based on the terrain and environment without necessarily being explicit about it in the game: "Like all good DMs, our authors bend the dice to suit the story."

I'll be back in the Realms, with this party, in less than a year with Secret of the Silver Blades--a game that few of you seem to like--and in 1991 with Pools of Darkness. Four games in four years sounds like a lot, especially by modern standards, and that's just the "Pool of Radiance" series. SSI knew they had something with the Gold Box engine, and in 1990, they also launched the Dragonlance Gold Box series with Champions of Krynn, followed by Death Knights of Krynn in 1991 and The Dark Queen of Krynn in 1992. The two "Savage Frontier" games appeared in 1991 and 1992 respectively, and the company used the engine in a non-D&D context with Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990) and a 1992 sequel. As much as I like the Gold Box engine, it'll be a miracle if I'm not thoroughly sick of it by the end of 1992.

The next game might be a bit of a surprise. I'm still trying to figure out the controls for Dragons of Flame. I just bought a game controller, which I've never used on a PC before, and I'm not sure how easy or hard it will be to get it to mimic a 1980s joystick. Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back was never actually released for the PC, so I have to figure out whether to use a fan-made DOS port or learn another emulator. The next game might simply be the one that gives me the least grief.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Gold Box: Spells and their Uses

I'm afraid of what loving this spell so much says about me.

Note: This was updated on 23 September 2014, after I finished Secret of the Silver Blades, to cover the spells in that game and Champions of Krynn.

In a comment on my "Behold" posting, PetrusOctavianus and Tristan Gall educated me as to the virtues of the "Enlarge" spell, which--oh, stop snickering--increases the size and strength of the subject. Unlike many D&D spells, it increases in potency with the mage's level, such that, according to the game manual, "if the caster is 6th level, the target becomes as strong as an ogre; if the caster is 10th level, the target becomes as strong as a fire giant."

It's an extremely useful spell--a bevy of them cast before a big combat can easily turn the tables--and yet I had entirely overlooked it. 

Because of this, after I finished with Dracandros, I forced myself to spend some time in random ruins, determined to cast every spell in the game and note its effects, not just for this game but for all future ones. (My research was helped considerably by a Ring of Wizardry that we found in Dracandros's tower, which doubles my mage's available first-third level spells.) These are the results of my investigations, with the understanding that I didn't cast all spells against all enemies. What I'm looking for are any comments about spells I may not be giving enough credit (or, I suppose, those that I'm giving too much credit). I'll carry this knowledge to the next game and update this list accordingly.

For experimentation purposes, my cleric memorizes an unconventional list of spells.

This is a long posting, and perhaps serves better as a reference rather than something that you read through all at once. I thought it was important to list all the spells because we're going to encounter this same list again and again--for I think 7 more games.

(I have some broader thoughts about the Vancian magic system, but I'm saving those for a later posting. For those unversed in the D&D spell system, suffice to say that both clerics and mages get a certain number of "spell slots" at each level and must "memorize" the spells during periods of sleeping. Thus, you can only re-stock spells at places and times where it's safe to rest.)

Cleric Spells

First Level

Bless. Increases the party's "to hit" rolls by 1. Not terribly powerful, but it also doesn't hurt to cast it just before combat to give the party a slight edge. I wouldn't waste a round on it in combat.

Curse. Reduces the "to hit" rolls of monsters by 1. Partly because the effects are so paltry and partly because enemies who start the game next to party members are immune, I don't think it's worth a combat round, and unlike "Bless," it can't be cast before combat. I'd rather the priest spent it attacking or casting a better spell.

Cure Light Wounds. Healing only 1-8 hit points, it loses its usefulness at higher levels, but it is helpful for getting unconscious characters on their feet before the end of a battle, mostly so they'll get the experience for the battle. En masse, it's useful outside of combat.

Cause Light Wounds. Damages 1-8. Useless now that my priest is capable of doing more than that with a melee weapon.

Detect Magic. Determines what items are magical. Useful at the end of combats to help figure out what to take. I don't waste a cleric slot on it, though; I have my ranger memorize the comparable mage spell.

Protection from Evil. Improves AC and saving throws by 2 against evil enemies, but only for one character. Theoretically useful, but obviated by the paladin's innate abilities and the fourth-level spell that protects the entire party.

Protection from Good. You rarely fight good characters in this series, even as an evil party. I can't imagine when I'd use this.

Resist Cold. Halves cold-based damage and improves saving throws by 3, but only for one character. I don't think Curse features a single cold-based attacker, but Secret certainly does. Like "Resist Fire," when I find I need it, I'll have my cleric dump everything else, memorize six of these, and re-memorize my older spells after the key combat.

As you can see, the cleric swiftly outgrows the first level. I generally keep a couple of "Bless" in memory and save the rest for "Cure Light Wounds."

Second Level

Find Traps. Does what it says, and with greater success than the thief. But traps are rare. I keep one for when I need it.

Hold Person. Paralyzes up to three humanoid targets. Extremely useful even though it often fails. 

Resist Fire. Halves fire-based damage and improves saving throws by 3. It's more useful in this game than "Resist Cold," since I've faced enemies like efreets and salamanders, but again it's something that you memorize in a hurry when you know you'll need it.

Silence 15' Radius. Prevents the target and those adjacent to him from casting spells. I haven't given this one the attention it deserves, preferring to hold or damage rather than silence spellcasters, though "Silence" seems to have a greater chance of success. You can also cast it on your own party members and then maneuver them into a radius of the enemy spellcasters.

Slow Poison. When a character is poisoned in the game, he immediately "dies." "Neutralize Poison" will cure the poison and revive him; "Slow" will revive him for a while, but when it wears off, the character dies permanently. I think it's too risky to use, and I haven't been poisoned in this game anyway.

Snake Charm. Charms snakes, which actually paralyzes them rather than turning them against the attackers. Why there aren't "charm" spells for other creatures, I don't know. It's useful for one battle in Pool, none in Curse, but quite a few in Secret.

"Snake Charm" came in real handy the one time I faced snakes.
 
Spiritual Hammer creates a temporary magic hammer that "does normal hammer damage." Rendered obsolete by any magic weapon, or a stock of regular hammers for that matter.

I thus spend almost all of my Level 2 slots on "Hold Person," with one "Find Traps" in reserve.

Third Level

Animate Dead. This spell appeared in Pool but didn't make the transition to the later games, perhaps because the second game didn't have the same NPC system. It basically turns any dead PC into a zombie NPC who no longer gains experience. It has a few potential uses: you could use it on an existing NPC to keep him from getting a share of the treasure, or on elf party members (who otherwise can't be raised, but since you generally have every incentive to keep a living, experience-gaining party (of both PCs and NPCs), it's hard to see using this much.

Bestow Curse. Reduces enemy THAC0 and saving throws by 4. I'm not sure why I'd use this instead of "Cause Blindness," which does the same things and affects the armor class besides. I guess some enemies are probably immune to blindness. Anyway, I rarely get into this kind of statistics-adjusting on the individual level. Maybe in a tough battle with a "boss-level" foe.

Cure Blindness. Does what it says. I've encountered nothing in any Gold Box game (so far) that blinds me.
 
Cause Blindness. Blinds ones enemy and thus "reduces the target's THAC0, armor class, and saving throws by 4." I'm assuming this is a typo, and that it increases the AC by 4, or I'm inadvertently helping them. In any event, I should probably spend a slot on it for those rare occasions when a single tank-like fighter gives me trouble, but generally I've ignored it.

Cure Disease. Does what it says, although I haven't found any disease-causing agents in Curse or Secret. I often keep one around, just in case.

Cause Disease. "Gives the target a disease that saps his strength and HP." Without knowing exactly how much, I'm not sure I trust the spell enough to spend a slot on it.

Dispel Magic. Removes the effects of general magic spells. Very useful, and I always keep a few handy for characters who get held or charmed. I found it was less useful in Secret, since almost anything it dispels is ineffective against my characters' heightened saving throws.

Prayer. Improves "to hit" rolls and saving throws of the party by 1 while simultaneously reducing enemies' by 1. Like casting "Bless" and "Curse" at the same time, but it actually stacks with "Bless" and can be cast outside combat. I always have at least one of these ready for pre-combat buffing.

Prayer is an important component in pre-combat buffing.
 
Remove Curse. Dispels "Curse" spells and cursed items. Enemies rarely curse me, but it's useful for the occasional cursed item. I find it easier to memorize and cast it when I need it rather than carrying it around.

Fourth Level

Cure Serious Wounds. Supposed to heal 3-17. I find that it almost always heals the low end of that range; otherwise it would be more useful than "Cure Light Wounds" in combat.
 
Cause Serious Wounds. I've decided to carry one of these around. It does 3-17 damage--often less than my melee weapon, but with a near-100% chance of working. Good for when you absolutely must cause damage, or finish off an enemy, this round.

Neutralize Poison. Obviously useful for when it happens, but I've yet to experience it in Curse. I got poisoned a lot more in Pool of Radiance, and it seems odd that it's such a high-level spell. (In Secret, poison came back significantly.)

Poison. Target has to make a saving throw versus poison or die. From my experimentation, I need to spend more slots on this. It often doesn't work, but when it does work, the instant kill is very satisfying.

Protection from Evil, 10' Radius. Like the regular "Protection from Evil," but affects everyone in a radius. I prefer this one for its mass effect, and I almost always use it as a buffing spell before combat.Yes, my paladin has it innately, but it's not easy to keep everyone next to the paladin. If I cast a couple of these on other party members, I increase the odds that everyone will benefit.

Sticks to Snakes. Perhaps the silliest spell in the cleric repertoire. The caster hurls a bunch of sticks at the enemy, which turn into snakes and occupy the target for a few rounds. It almost always fails, and even when it succeeds, it's not nearly as useful as "Hold" spells.

I've typically memorized only "Cure Serious Wounds" and "Protection from Evil" at this level, but thanks to my research, I'm spreading things out a little more.

Fifth Level

Cure Critical Wounds. It supposedly heals 6-27, but like it's predecessor, I find that it's almost always at the low end of the range. I like to keep one to heal melee characters in combat, though most characters who get so low they need it are highly likely to get knocked unconscious (or killed) in the following round anyway.

Cause Critical Wounds. Does 6-27 damage with no saving throw. Has similar virtues to "Cause Serious Wounds," but since it occupies the same spell level as "Slay Living," I think the latter is a better use of the slot.

Dispel Evil. An odd one. Supposedly, when cast on a party member, it improves the character's armor class by 7 "versus summoned evil creatures." When the character hits an evil creature in combat, "it must save versus spells or be dispelled." The problem is, I don't know what constitutes a "summoned creature." If it's limited to those summoned in combat, that literally has never happened, and I don't think the spells even exist in this game.

Flame Strike: 6-48 damage on one target with a chance that the target will make a saving throw and receive half damage. Sounds good, but I think "Slay Living" is a better use of the spell slot.

Raise Dead: Raises dead characters. Useful, of course, but raising characters in this version of the AD&D rules, whether by spell or temple, subtracts a point of constitution. Also, the system of "unconsciousness" in the Gold Box series (characters with between 0 and -10 hit points become "unconscious" instead of killed; if bandaged, they can be revived at the end of the combat) means that individual characters rarely die without taking the entire party with them. I don't keep it memorized.

Slay Living. The enemy target has to make a save versus death or die. But even if he makes the save, he still loses 3-17 hit points. Since even at its worst, it does almost as much damage as "Cause Critical Wounds" or "Flame Strike," and has a chance of causing instant death besides, I find it a better use of the slot than either of those.

I use fifth-level slots almost entirely for "Slay Living," with perhaps one "Cure Critical Wounds" in reserve.

Sixth Level

Heal. Cures disease, blindness, feeblemindedness, and restores all except 1-4 hit points. I don't know why it couldn't restore all hit points, but whatever. One of only two Level 6 spells, and it's too useful to bother with the other.

Harm. Does "terrible damage" to a living creature, leaving only 1-4 hit points. "Heal" is so useful that I haven't taken to memorizing "Harm," so I don't really know if the enemies get saving throws or what. If not, I suppose I could be persuaded to learn it once I have three Level 6 slots.


Magic-User Spells

First Level

Burning Hands. Does 1 point of fire damage per level of the caster. Even with no saving throw, underperforms "Magic Missile" at any level.

Charm Person. Turns one humanoid opponent to your side. It's awesome when it works, but it hardly ever does. I usually keep one around.

Detect Magic. Same as the cleric spell. It's worth having a few memorized to help sort through the post-combat equipment, but I prefer to have my ranger do it.

Enlarge. This is the spell that prompted my investigations. It basically makes every character a better melee fighter. I try to keep enough to cast on my weaker characters before a big battle.

Reduce. Negates an "Enlarge" spell if active, otherwise reduces an enemy in size and power. It seemed promising, but it disappeared after Curse of the Azure Bonds.

Friends. Raises the caster's charisma by 2-8. I have no idea when I would use this spell, or for what reason. I haven't seen any encounters dependent on charisma, and it's not like you have to eke every gold piece out of a shopkeeper in this series.

Magic Missile. An excellent offensive spell that just gets better as the mage increases levels. Each missile only does 2-5 damage, but a Level 11 mage casts 6 of them at once. It casts instantly, there's no saving throw, it has a huge range, and hardly anyone is immune to them.

Protection from Evil. Same as the cleric spell of the same name. No way I'm wasting a first-level mage slot on this.

Protection from Good. Just as useless as the analogous cleric spell, even for evil parties. It disappeared from the mage repertoire after Curse.

Read Magic. Serves as an "identify" spell, but only for magic scrolls. I rarely need to identify them so quickly that I can't just wait until the party gets back to town.

Shield. Protects against magic missile, increases armor class, and improves saving throws. This is another one that I've been completely ignoring and probably serves as a decent pre-combat buffing spell.

Shocking Grasp. Does 1-8 damage plus 1 per level of the caster. Thus, after Level 5, it underperforms "Magic Missile." I've never used it because "Magic Missile" casts at a range and you need to be next to the enemy for "Shocking Grasp." I suppose at low levels it might be a good emergency spell for when enemies charge the mage in melee.

Sleep. Puts 1-16 enemies to sleep. It was great in Pool of Radiance, but it only works on low-level enemies. It hasn't worked once for me in Curse. It mysteriously remains in the Secret manual despite being effective on none of the enemies in the game.

"Sleep" was fantastic against low-level monsters in Pool of Radiance

(As an aside, every time I cast either "Sleep" or "Hold," I can't help but think how horrible it would be to be a victim of one of those spells. In the thick of combat, arrows flying, swords singing, and suddenly your limbs or paralyzed, or you feel your self collapse lethargically to the ground. At that point, you know it's just a matter of time before one of your foes comes over to administer the killing blow while you're helpless, and you won't even be able to defend yourself. If magic was real, "Sleep" and "Hold" would be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.)
 
Lots of spells in Level 1, but I generally keep my slots filled with only three of them: "Charm Person," "Enlarge," and "Magic Missile."

Second Level

Detect Invisibility. Does what it says, allowing party members to target invisible creatures (who are normally untargetable). Few enemies have this ability, and it's tough to determine when an enemy is invisible (he still shows up on the screen; you have to notice that the game won't let you target him).

Invisibility. Makes the target invisible, reducing "to hit" rolls of melee attackers by 4 and making it impossible for enemies to target ranged weapons or spells. But as in most games, it disappears when the character makes an attack or casts a spell. I suppose it would be useful when fleeing (which I never do) or perhaps to protect a spellcaster for the first round.

Knock. Opens locks. There have been a few of these in the game, but the thief's picking skill usually does the trick, and "bashing" works when that fails. I often keep one in memory just in case.

Mirror Image. Creates 1-4 duplicates of the caster which disappear when attacked. A useful protective spell, and I keep one in memory to cast before difficult combats.

Ray of Enfeeblement. Makes the target weak to the tune of -25% strength plus -2% per level of the caster (that's -47% at my level). Theoretically valuable against tough melee opponents, but I've been ignoring it, particularly since you have to already be in melee range to cast it.

Stinking Cloud. Creates a 2x2 square of noxious gas. At best (but rarely), it paralyzes targets. At worst, it prevents them from casting spells and increases their armor class. As some commenters have pointed out, aside from its direct benefits, it's useful because monsters won't walk into it, so you can use it to shape the battlefield the way you want. I usually have one or two at hand for that purpose, or to cast on groups of spellcasters.

Strength. Raises strength by 1-8, but only to a maximum of 18(00). (Why this and "Friends," but not spells that increase the other attributes?) Before I found out about "Enlarge," I used it a lot pre-combat to make decent melee fighters out of my weaker character. But "Enlarge" doesn't have the cap, so it performs a lot better. I keep a couple of "Strength" spells memorized only so I don't spend six slots on "Enlarge."

There are fairly useful spells at this level, although I wish there were a couple of directly-offensive ones (when does "Melf's Acid Arrow" appear?). I keep the slots spread between "Mirror Image," "Stinking Cloud," and "Strength."

Third Level

Blink. Protects the magic user by having him "blink out" after he acts each round, making it impossible for anyone to hit or target him. It would be fantastic, especially for those rounds in which the mage goes early, except that there are so many other awesome third-level spells.
 
Dispel Magic. Removes magic effects from one character. Great spell, but I prefer to use the cleric version and save the Level 3 spell slots for other mage spells.

Fireball. Perhaps the most useful spell in the game, or at least the one I like the most. Does 1d6 per damage for every level of the caster, and over an enormous 37-square area indoors. When I face a large group of enemies all bunched together, I get tingles. Enemies often make saving throws for half-damage, but even then it can disrupt every enemy spellcaster and soften them up spectacularly. It never gets old.

An arrangement custom-made for a fireball.
 
Haste. Doubles the movement of the party, including the number of melee attacks per round. The effects are great, but it comes at the high price of aging the party one year every time it's cast. Only worth it for very difficult boss battles.

Hold Person. Same as the cleric spell, but affects 4 targets instead of 3. I prefer to leave this to the clerics.

Invisibility, 10' radius. Same as "Invisibility," but can affect every character if cast at the beginning of combat. It's a good way to start combat right, and to make the party immune to spellcasters who go before the party members. A good use of this spell is to "Delay" all character actions until the end of the round, after every foe has moved (and generally done something ineffective). I suppose you could memorize multiple iterations of the spell and ensure that your mage goes last every round, effectively giving your party unfettered ranged attacks for a few rounds.

Lightning Bolt. Another fantastic spell, vying with "Fireball" for usefulness. It also does 1d6 damage per level, but in a straight line of 4-8 squares (and it will even rebound off walls). It's great for when enemies line up instead of "bunching."

Protection from Evil, 10' Radius. Same as the cleric spell, and since there are so many useful Level 3 mage spells, I prefer to leave this one to the clerics.

Protection from Good, 10' Radius. I can't imagine a greater waste of a Level 3 mage slot.

Protection from Normal Missiles. Makes the caster immune to non-magic missile weapons. These are relatively rare in the game. The spell would perhaps be useful if enemies with missile weapons had better AI and tried to target the mage, but they don't. I can't see spending a slot on it.

Slow. Halves targets' movements and melee attacks. It affects one enemy per level of the caster. It seems like a useful spell that I've generally ignored in favor of "Lightning Bolt" and "Fireball." I should experiment with it more.

As you can see, Level 3 has some spectacular spells. I wish more of these had been available at Level 2 or Level 4. I generally prioritize "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt" but keep an "Invisibility, 10' Radius" and "Haste" in reserve when I start to get more than 3 or 4 Level 3 slots.

Fourth Level

Charm Monster. Works like "Charm Person" but on any creature. It has a greater chance of success (though still not high) and affects more than one monster. It's always useful to turn an enemy to your side.
 
Confusion. Puts 2-16 targets in a confused state, which sometimes makes them flee, sometimes makes them attack their comrades, and sometimes makes them just stand around. Another spell that I haven't given as much attention to as it deserves. It often fails.

Dimension Door. Teleports the mage from one point on the battlefield to another. I can't think of any reason I'd use this except to escape, and intelligent movement of the mage means you'll never be in a position where it's necessary.

Fear. Causes enemies to flee. That sounds nice in theory, but you actually want to avoid fleeing enemies. At best, you have to chase them down or take them out with missile weapons. At worst, they escape off the screen, and you don't get their experience or items. "Confusion" is a better use of the slot.

Fire Shield. A neat spell that shrouds the mage in either flames or ice. Not only does it protect against attacks of the same kind, but creatures who hit the mage in melee combat receives twice the damage they cause in return. A nice punishing spell, and I like to cast it before battle. I'm not a big fan of enemies who cast it.

Fumble. Affects one target and causes him to just stand around. If it fails, the target still comes under the effects of a "Slow" spell. I guess it could be useful, but at this level we should be way past targeting one enemy at a time. [Later edit: In the comments below, PetrusOctavianus says that it works well against dragons, who have lousy saving throws, making them "forget" to use their breath attacks.]

Ice Storm. 3-30 hit points of damage to a 21-square area, with no saving throw. It's a useful mass-damage spell, but unlike "Fireball" it doesn't increase in damage as the mage increases in level. I like to keep one around for enemies immune to fire damage.

Minor Globe of Invulnerability. Protects the mage against first- through third-level spells. Potentially useful, but I don't often face enough enemy mages that I can't disrupt their spellcasting. Outclassed by "Globe of Invulnerability" later.

Remove Curse. Same as the third-level cleric spell. Since it's rarely needed, I wouldn't waste a mage spell slot on it.

Bestow Curse. Again, same as the third-level cleric spell. It makes a single melee fighter a little weaker and more vulnerable. It seems very weak for a fourth-level mage spell, and it's gone by ecret of the Silver Blades.

For fourth-level spells, I rarely go outside "Charm Monster," "Confusion," "Fire Shield," and "Ice Storm."

Fifth Level

Cloud Kill. Creates a 3x3 area of poison gas in which lower-level enemies instantly die. This is a great spell in the Infinity Engine games because enemies that don't die instantly take damage every round. I remember a few areas in which I had fun opening a door, firing off a "Cloud Kill," slamming the door shut, and watching my foes take continual damage for five or six rounds. The Gold Box version doesn't do damage to enemies it doesn't kill, though, making it much less useful. It also has a miserable casting range of only 2 squares, and it centers where you cast it.

Viola fails to kill an ettin with a "Cloudkill."

Cone of Cold. 2-5 damage per caster level to all targets in a "cone shaped area." I have a really tough time lining up the spell to hit the enemies I want (and none of my allies), but it's the only really sure-thing offensive spell at this level.

Feeblemind. Reduces the intelligence and wisdom of the target to 3, which makes him incapable of casting spells and worsens saving throws. I keep one on hand for boss-level magic users, although I find that they usually save against it.

Hold Monster. Works like "Hold Person" but on any monster, and up to 4 targets per casting. It often fails, but it's fantastic when it works, allowing any character to kill the monster with an immediate coup de grâce.

I tend to load up on "Hold Monster" at this level, perhaps keeping one "Feeblemind" and one "Cone of Cold."

Sixth Level

Death Spell. Immediately kills opponents in adjacent squares to where it's cast. Awesome when it works, but I find that high-level foes almost always save against it.

Disintegrate. Instant kill on one target. Doesn't work on some creatures, but a surprising number of high-level foes will fall to it.

Flesh to Stone. Petrifies enemies who don't make a saving throw. I guess what I need to do is work out whether this works more often than "Disintegrate" or vice versa, as they both have the same effect.

Globe of Invulnerability. Protects against all spells of Level 1-4. I think it's an absolutely essential buffing spell for mages, keeping them from getting disrupted by "Hold Peson," "Fireball," "Lightning Bolt," or "Magic Missile" before they can cast.

Stone to Flesh. Counters the effects of stoning, which happens so often in Secret of the Silver Blades that you need to keep at least one in memory.

Tough choices at this level. Each is useful enough to have one in inventory, but you only get 2 or 3.

Seventh Level

Delayed Blast Fireball. A more powerful version of "Fireball" that defeats globes of invulnerability. The "delay" part doesn't make any sense in the Gold Box engine--in fact, it casts instantly, which "Fireball" doesn't--but otherwise just as awesome as "Fireball."
  

Mass Invisibility. I guess this is useful to avoid having to keep everyone bunched together after casting "Invisibility, 10' Radius." Otherwise duplicates that spell, so I wouldn't waste what could be another "Fireball' on it.

Power Word, Stun. A curiously lame spell for such a high level. It effects only one creature, the caster has to be directly adjacent to the target, and unlike "Hold," stunning just makes the enemy inert; it doesn't freeze him for a coup de grâce like "Hold." The only thing I can think is that enemies need higher saving throws against it? Either way, "Fireball" is the better option.

No question here: every slot goes to "Delayed Blast Fireball."


Druid Spells

Although the Gold Box series doesn't allow a druid class, there are a small selection of druid spells available to rangers.

First Level

Detect Magic. Works the same as the mage and cleric spells. Since druid spells are otherwise less useful than the ranger simply attacking for a round, I have him memorize these exclusively.

Entangle. Keeps a target from moving, which sounds nice, but it only works outdoors, where I rarely fight. Again, I'd just have the ranger attack.

Faerie Fire. Creates a halo around the enemy and reduces armor class by 2. I can't see spending a round on it.

Invisibility to Animals. Does what it says. For those rare battles exclusively with animals (I literally can't think of one in Curse or Secret), you might as well use the regular mage "Invisibility" spell.

Second Level

Barkskin. A decent buffing spell that reduces AC by 1. It certainly doesn't hurt anything.

Charm Person or Mammal. Like the first-level mage spell but affects any mammal. By the time you get it, most foes have strong saving throws and the ranger is such a good attacker, it's hard to see him spending a round on this. But I should experiment more.

Cure Light Wounds. Same as the first-level cleric spell. Useful for an extra couple of castings.

I tend to memorize "Barkskin" and "Cure Light Wounds" exclusively.


Closing Thoughts

A lot of the spells I've tagged as "useless" are largely about micromanaging statistics: increasing hit rolls and saving throws for the party, decreasing them from the enemy, boosting immunity to certain spell types, and so forth. To me, such spells would make more sense if the combats lasted a lot longer, but the battle against the beholder corps aside, I can't think of one that has lasted more than four or five rounds.

I'm perfectly happy to do this tweaking in camp, just before entering a big battle, but not at the expense of a spell slot better used for an offensive spell, and certainly not at the expense of some action while in combat. I'd much rather just take a swing at an enemy, hitting or missing, than to spend a round casting a spell that might increase my chances of hitting by 20% in the next round.

My tactics might change in later games if the enemies themselves change. There was one memorable battle in Dracondrus's tower with a high-level Drow fighter with a very low armor class and over 100 hit points. Even though I was overpowered for the area, many of my attacks swished by him, and he did a good job pounding down my hit points with multiple attacks per round. If there were more battles like this--against small groups of very powerful foes--it might make more sense to me to have my priests and mages dancing in the periphery of combat, casting spells that slightly altered my melee fighters' odds. We'll see if that happens in later games.

I will update and re-post this entry after I experience Secret of the Silver Blades and Champions of Krynn in 1990, and I'll make edits based on comments that you leave below.