@Play: Which Is Better, Ring Mail or Splint Mail?

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

Gary Gygax was a weird person. I won’t get into his life or history or, the casual misogyny of AD&D character creation, or the Random Harlot Table. But he did know a lot about medieval weaponry and armor, and to some degree this obsessive interest seeped out and infected a whole generation of nerds.

How useful is this armor in protecting someone? Five. It is five useful. (Image from National Museum in Krakow)

I know which is generally better: leather armor, studded leather armor, ring mail, chain mail, splint mail, plate mail or plate armor. I know that, although in life each is different, battles are random, and there’s countless factors that might determine who would win in a fight, the order in which I have given them is roughly how effective they are, because it’s the order that Armor Class increases, sorry decreases, in classic Dungeons & Dragons.

While the list of armors is presented, in practically every Player’s Handbook, with their effects on protection right there in order, unless you’re steeped in the material, it is not obvious, just from reading the names of the items, which is supposed to be better than another.

Splint Mail was rare in Europe during the medieval period. It’s also really hard to Google Image Search for without ending up with pictures taken from D&D material!(Image from Wikipedia)

This is a considerable roadblock, and one I struggled with for a while, when I first tried to learn to play Rogue, because that game expects you to know how effective each piece of armor is. You start out with Ring Mail +1. You find a suit of Splint Mail. Should you switch? People who play nearly any classic roguelike are going to run against this eventually. Even now, some games just expect you to know the relative strengths of each.

If you decide to take the chance and try it on, to Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) credit, it tells you immediately how effective the armor is on the status line, and you can compare its value to your past item. To Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) detriment though, if the new armor is cursed, you’re stuck with it, until you can lift the curse (to a new player, unlikely) or die (very likely). And then, unless you’ve been taking notes, you’ll still probably forget the relationship between the two items, meaning you’ll have to guess their relative value again later, and deal with the same risk.

Classic D&D tended to give short shrift to the intricacies of real-life armor use, simplifying a complex topic beyond perhaps what was appropriate. AD&D attempted to remedy that by going overboard, giving each armor ratings according to its bulkiness, how much of the wearer’s body it covered, how much it weighed and how it restricted movement. Gygax’s tendency towards simulation is responsible for some of the most interesting parts of the game, but it didn’t help him here I think.

Most classic roguelikes, at least, use the “bag of Armor Class” approach to armor, which is probably for the best. Nethack probably goes to far in the Gygaxian direction. If you find Plate Mail in Nethack, you’re almost entirely better off just leaving it on the ground, even despite armor’s huge value, because it’s simply too heavy. Even if you can carry it without dipping into Burdened status, or, heaven help you, Stressed, its mass and bulk lowers the number of other items you can carry before you reach Stressed, and carrying many other items is of great importance. This is the secret reason that the various colors of Dragon Scale Mail are so powerful in Nethack: it’s not that they have the highest best AC in the game (though they do), it’s that they’re also really light! Even if you don’t get the color you want, it takes concern about the weight of armor completely off your list of worries.

The use of armor underwent revision throughout D&D’s development. (This page lists the changes in detail.) For reference, the relative quality of D&D, and thus roguelike, armor goes like this.

NameNew-Style Ascending Armor ClassOld-Style Descending Armor Class
Leather Armor28
Studded Leather & Ring Mail37
Scale Mail46
Chain Mail55
Splint Mail & Banded Mail64
Plate Mail73
Plate Armor82

Why the difference in values? Up until the 3rd edition of D&D, Armor Class started at 10 and counted down as it improved. 3E updated a lot of the game’s math, and changed the combat formula so that AC was a bonus to the defender’s chance to be missed instead of a penalty to the attacker’s chance to strike. Because of that, now it starts at 10 and counts up. The changeover was a whole to-do, I assure you, but now two editions later we barely look back. Back in that day others were confused by the system too, and even Rogue used an ascending armor score. But Nethack, to this day, uses original D&D’s decreasing armor class system.

If you compare those values to those used in 5th Edition, you’ll notice that even the new-style numbers don’t match up completely. As I said, while the relative strengths have remained consistent, if not constant, the numbers continue to change slightly between versions.

That concludes this introductory level class. You’re dismissed! If you’re looking into the relative effects of different polearms… that’s the graduate-level seminar, down the hall.

Which Version of Wizardry 1 to Play?

Let’s keep rolling with these Youtube finds. There’s millions of them, but most of them are obnoxious, with the emphasis on noxious, so I try only to repost here the best. And this one’s pretty informative.

Which version of the classic foundational CRPG Wizardry should you play? I’m going to emphasize that you should play one of them. Wizardry inspired so many people, but one ever quite duplicated its mixture of tabletop-inspired party-based play, permadeath, and overwhelming difficulty. Wizardry is a game that doesn’t want you to win it. That’s why characters cost a fortune to revive, cost an ever greater fortune to bring back if that process fails, and it becomes impossible to revive them if that fails too.

If characters die in the dungeon, their corpses aren’t even brought back to the surface for you! You have to take a different party of characters into the dungeon (assuming they’re strong enough to survive the journey!), move the dead members into empty slots in your group, then return to town, unload them into storage, and repeat until you’ve rescued them all. And woe to the characters who mistype a teleport spell and end up embedded in rock, because they’re utterly destroyed, vanished, obliterated, annihilated, eradicated, gone.

Wizardry hates players, and that’s why you should play it: to teach it a goddamn lesson.

Youtuber Tea Leaves played a lot of versions of Wizardry, including a very promising upcoming version by Digital Eclipse, which has modern quality of life features and modern graphics, while also having, at its foundation, the Apple II original, with all its hatred for organic life. In summary, he thinks that version is great, but also has positive things to say about other versions, especially the fan-patched translation of the Japanese Super Famicom version. But they don’t like the DOS version-it has a terrible bug which Tea Leaves emphasizes makes it unplayable. Noted!

Which Version of Wizardry Should I Play (Youtube, 27 minutes)

A 30+ Year Old RPG System for the Commodore 64

It’s been months now since I announced my plans to release some project involving LOADSTAR, a 17-year computer magazine on disk, either here or on itch.io, or both. I’m still working on them.

In the meantime, I present this, a packaged-up release of Dungeon on itch.io, a complete old-school RPG gaming system for the Commdore 64, as it was released on the disk magazine LOADSTAR back in 1990.

Written by David Caruso II, Dungeon is a way of creating adventures for others to play, and a system of creating, maintaining and playing characters in those adventures. It was kind of a throwback even in 1990 (the SNES was released that year), but it definitely has charm, and an old-school kind of appeal.

You start out on the Guild screen, where you create a character from one of five fantasy races, then venture out on adventures stored on floppy disks, which in this release are provided as C64 1541 disk images. Fight monsters to earn experience points, find the object of the quest and then return to the Guild by the exit to have the chance to advance in experience level. If your character dies they’ll be revived, but only up to two times! If something happens and you don’t make it back, but don’t die either, your character will be marked as “GONE,” meaning they’re stuck in limbo until they make it back to the Guild on their own!

Your character advances in level between adventures, but they don’t get to keep any items they found on their journey. If they advance in level however, they get to permanently improve two of their stats. Getting to the maximum score of 25 grants them a special ability, but it’s really hard to get there!

This presentation of Dungeon is being made with the permission of Fender Tucker, owner and former Managing Editor of LOADSTAR. It isn’t free, but for $5 you get the Dungeon system and five pre-made adventures for it, culled from the 240+ issues of LOADSTAR. I include a stock copy of the open-source Commodore 64 emulator VICE, configured for playing Dungeon. (If $5 is too much for you, rumor has it Loadstar issues can be found online elsewhere. Dungeon was first published on issue #74.)

If you want to know more about it, I have constructed this 40-page PDF of documentation on Dungeon, from the disks of LOADSTAR in 1990, along with the instructions for the adventures and further notes on playing it from me. Here:

(file size: 2.6 MB)

The document refers to an itch.io release, that’s what I’m currently working on. Late in the document there are some spoilers for a particularly difficult adventure using the system.

Dungeon was created by someone named David Caruso II. Neither I nor long-time LOADSTAR managing editor Fender Tucker knows what became of him. I have what is almost certainly an old address for him. It’s been 33 years, and I suspect that Dungeon itself is a couple of years older than that, so it’s possible that Caruso has passed away by now. If he hasn’t, though, I’d like to talk with him. I think (hope?) he’d appreciate that people are still thinking about his creation even now.

WIZARDReplaY

Wizardry used to be the most popular computer game in the world.

It has fallen on hard times recently. Creators SirTech released the terrific Wizardry 8 but then almost immediately closed up. The name is currently owned by a Japanese developer, who make games in the classic style but they’re still quite different, chasing old ghosts instead of trying to adapt the idea for new generations.

A full examination of Wizardry will have to wait for another time, but until then there’s a repackaging of the original Apple II versions available from the Total Replay folks. It’s made to run off of a ProDOS-formatted hard drive, words that themselves form a fearsome incantation, but you can still play it emulated. And should!

It includes an update of the original Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, plus the successor scenarios Night of Diamonds and Legacy of Llylgamin, plus five fan-made scenarios. It also includes WizPlus, a character editor, but diehards won’t use that. It’s cheating!

To explain Wizardry in summary, it took the ideas of early Dungeons & Dragons and adapted them to a dungeon exploration simulation with the same kind of theoretical basis. In D&D, if a character dies and there’s no way to revive it, it’s gone: no backsies. And sometimes revivals fail, and the character is gone anyway. And the dungeon in a genuinely treacherous place. If your party wipes, to even try to revive them, you have to create a new party of adventures, take them in, find the deceased party’s corpses in the dungeon, and either use magic to revive them there or drag them back to town to have the Temple of Cant do it.

If this sounds forbidding to current sensibilities, it certainly is! But that’s the point. Because of it, it’s about as close as you can get to traditional RP-gaming as you can get on a computer, even more so that official D&D products. Roguelikes come close, but since you only play as a single character in most of them they still don’t quite fit that electronic bill.

Wizard Replay (Apple II, Internet Archive)

Link Roundup 5/3/2022

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Bryan of Nintendo Everything brings us the words of the Mother 3 producer who thinks they know why it’s not been released in English: it has to do with the difficulty in bringing the special qualities of Shigesato Itoi’s prose to a language other than Japanese.

Gabe Gurwin of Gamespot thinks he knows why the Castlevania game reboot failed: the first one fit into the prior story but “frustrated” fans a bit, but the second one sucked. Eh.

Tom Nardi of hackaday brings us the experiences and pictures of Vintage Computer Festival East 2022.

One entire internet has been posting about Ocarina of Time remade in Unreal Engine with a 60fps frame rate. I am told that I should at least acknowledge this. I do so with Marc Deschamps’s mention on comicbook.com. It mentions the fact that Sora from Kingdom Hearts is playable.

Slightly more heartening is a report from Joseph Luster, writing for Crunchyroll, that two tactics games set in the R-Type universe are being remade.

Isaiah Colbert on Kotaku brings us news of Twitch’s plans for improving profits from streaming. Hint: they involve reducing the cut that streamers receive and even more ads! All problems solved! The streamers themselves don’t appear to be thrilled.

Tyler Fischer for comicbook tells us Square Enix plans of reviving the Fear Effect series.

And Lowell Bell on NintendoLife uses speculation about bringing them to Switch as their excuse to mention ten Western RPGs: Ultima (why only the original?), Diablo (it’s already got Diablos 2 and 3), Fallout (Wasteland 2 is there), Might & Magic VI (bring us Xeen!), Deus Ex, Morrowind, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, Neverwinter Nights 2, Dragon Age: Origins and Witcher II.