@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.

Sundry Sunday: Baldur’s Gate 3 Goes Too Far

Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.

From the excellent D&D-focused animation channel Dungeon Soup. I won’t say anything more except it has to do with Baldur’s Gate 3 (as it says in the title), and that it’s NSFW in theme if not technically in visuals.

Goblin Bet

Goblin Bet is a website that presents an endless sequence of D&D 5th edition monsters fighting each other one-on-one. You bet pretend gold pieces on the outcome. Like the similar-in-concept Salty Bet, none of the money is real, you can’t pay for extra currency and it can’t be exchanged for anything. In fact, the game won’t let you drop below 50 gold, so you might as well bet all-in if you get to that point.

The game follows a rough tournament structure. It starts with eight low CR creatures 1/8th to 1/4th, that fight each other in a branching kind of format. (There is nowhere to view the bracket, this has been determined largely through observation.) The winner gets to advance to the 1/2 CR round, where it might die quickly, but it might not. Most monsters are granted one added advantage randomly from a variety, and some of them are pretty powerful.

The brackets continue: 1 CR, 2 CR, 3 CR, and up and up, until around the 16 CR range. The higher the Challenge Ratings, the harder it is to figure out the winner of each match. A few abilities, in the combat system the site uses, are ludicrously powerful. We watched a Giant Crab stop over two complete brackets, at one point taking out a lion, because it had an ability, Stong Grappler, that was basically inescapable, so once its opponent was grappled, it just got advantage on all its attacks, and the opponent had disadvantage. In 5th edition D&D terms, “advantage” means, when you roll, roll two dice, and use whichever value is higher, and “disadvantage” means roll two dice and take the lower value. It’s a huge factor.

A lot of the fight outcomes come down to things like this, which you have to pick up by watching many matches. Flight, to give another example, is pretty strong, because it lets a creature keep attacking and retreating, forcing opponents without missile attacks to sprint sometimes to keep up, wasting turns. Often there will be fights where the outcome will be decided by whoever rolls better; it’s best to save your pretend money when that happens, and wait until there’s a fight with a clearer outcome.

It’s surprisingly addictive, and there’s an included chat that’s often pretty entertaining. I’ve enjoyed it anyway.

Goblin Bet

How Do You Say “Bahamut?”

Drew Mackie’s Thrilling Tales of Old Videogames brings up the issue of frequent Final Fantasy summon and sometimes optional boss monster Bahamut’s pronouncation, and tells us its mythological source wasn’t pronounced ba-HA-mut, but instead, ba-ha-MOOT.

Bahamut is one of the oldest traditions in Final Fantasy, going all the way back to the first game, where much of the game’s bestiary came directly from the Dungeons & Dragons books. Yet Bahamut was not fightable in that game, they wouldn’t fall into their standard role of challenge encounter until the third Japanese game. Like many D&D creatures, and JRPG creatures too, Bahamut was a borrowing from a mythological source. They were one of the entities upon whose back the world is carried. Observe:

Which of these entities is “dragon king” Bahamut? The person is just an “earth-bearing angel.” The bull is Kuyuta. Bahamut, or “Bahamoot,” is the fish. What’s more, it’s thought that the name derives from Behemoth, from the book of Job, despite Behemoth not being a fish. But Final Fantasy already has a Behemoth….

None of this proves much of anything. RPG writers, both tabletop and videogame, have long just pulled anything out of mythology, and sometimes more recent literature, that they wanted and just used it, regardless of author, age or culture. Gary Gygax had a Monster Manual to fill, he didn’t have any internet to help him fill it, but lots of other people enthusiastically used his bastardization, to help them compile their own bastardizations. That’s what most game lore is when you get right down to it: it’s bastardizations all the way down.

This is just a fraction of the edifying enfo, er info, in the article, a link to which awaits you here:

Bahamut and Behemoth: One And The Same? (Thrilling Tales of Old Videogames)

News 2/16/23: Switch Online, Google Share Prices, MS v Sony, Toaplan

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

Welcome shlorbs and foobs to our mostly-weekly text-based internet news program! I hope you enjoyed our techno/bicycle horn fusion theme song! It’s the number one chart-topper on my homeworld, but admittedly my species doesn’t have ears. Images includes in this post are ultimately from Mobygames.

Emily Olson at NPR (swanky!): Google’s shares dropped by $100… (holds paper in front of eyes, reads twice to make sure I see it right)… billion after a disastrous AI demonstration. As a wise cartoon butler once said, “You people have too much money!” I guess we see where everyone’s looking for the next unsupportable tech bubble now that crypto’s in what I understand humans call “the crapper!” I never understood that saying personally. It isn’t the thing that craps!

Liam Doolan at Nintendo Life tells us that the game lineup on the Japanese version of the new Game Boy game collection on Nintendo Switch Online is different than the Western lineup. Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare replaces video mahjongg player Yakuman. Interestingly the article tells us that Japan-only classic For The Frog The Bell Tolls is coming eventually, although it doesn’t say if it’ll see U.S. release, let alone if it’ll come out on my planet, drebnar!

I’ll admit, Kirby’s Dream Land is pretty nice.
Just look at the smile on that bomb-throwing Poppy Bros. Sr. That’s not the look of a sane person.

Also, Andrew Webster of The Verge says that the addition of the Game Boy games make Nintendo Switch Online the ultimate retro subscription. I mean it’s pretty good, but how was it that Gameboy titles were what pushed it over the line?

Matt Bassil of Wargamer brings us the surprising news that Bank of America thinks that Hasbro is harming its business by over-monetizing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. When a bank thinks you’re too money-grubbing you might want to sit down with some hot tea and reflect on your life.

Kotaku. Luke Plunkett. Sony claims before court that Microsoft’s request for documentation goes so far that it’s “obvious” harassment. I mean I am at a point in my blobular life that I don’t see anyone representing a corporation as saying a single syllable that isn’t mathematically calculated to four decimal places to improve their balance sheet, so who the hell knows if it’s true. Maybe it is? I am staying neutral in this fight. Acids and bases hurt my cell wall.

Metroid Prime

Oli Welsh of Polygon really likes the HD remake of Metroid Prime that Nintendo put on sale a few days ago, noting that it includes the pointing interface improvements introduced with the Wii rerelease.

Will Shanklin of Engadget tells us that a “Minecraft mad scientist” has recreated The Legend of Zelda in Minecraft, and in true mad scientist fashion is holding the work hostage, refusing to release it unless a video demonstrating it hits 5,000 Youtube likes. The article said it was at 500 likes; at our own press time it was up to 4.5K, so by the time you read this it should have enough. I will pass it along to Editorial as possible blog fodder (“blodder”) for Set Side B!

Ron Amadeo brings us the news that with the switch to monthly updates of Android 14, Google will begin just blocking apps on it made for versions of Android before 6. The reason given is security, but bah to that, old software and its preservation simply isn’t a priority for megacompanies like Google. Does anyone remember the days when it seemed like they might be a different kind of tech company? Me neither.

Nicole Clark at Polygon says Okami is the best Zelda-like. Sal Romano at Gematsu reveals that M2 is planning a collection of Toaplan shooters, including the infamous Zero Wing, the game whose U.S. translation brought us the “All Your Base” meme a 100 billion years ago. And Justin Carter at Game Developer reveals that Double Fine has made a documentary about the making of Psychonauts 2. Drebs out!

Games With Blobber Mazes

Apple II Wizardry. All images in this post are from MobyGames.

In @Play yesterday I mentioned a number of games that use Wizardry’s weird world metaphor. They’re sort of like roguelikes in that the world is divided into a grid of discrete spaces, but instead of viewing them from overhead, you are given a first-person view from the center of that space.

You don’t move with the same kind of smoothly-adjusting motion as Wolfenstein 3D would bring a while later, but movement instead jerks along one space at a time, and you turn in 90 degree increments. These games all disorient the player just enough that mapping them becomes important, but can be easily mapped on graph paper. Your more fiendish RPG dungeons of the type have tricks they play on you as you explore specifically to disorient you, like teleporting you to an identical-looking corridor without telling you, or spinning you around randomly. Wizardry and Bard’s Tale in particular delight in doing this.

It’s such a distinctive and immediately recognizable way to represent dungeon exploration that I’m surprised there isn’t a fan name for it, like “shmup” or “belt scroller.” I’ve calling them blobbers, but those actually get their name from the fact that, if you are commanding a party of characters, they’re all considered to inhabit that one space. The term doesn’t really apply to the mode of movement, only the atomicity of your group.

I gave a list of a good number of games that offer this kind of movement, but shortly after I thought of a bunch more, and they’re such a weird and varied bunch that I figured I’d take it as an excuse to catalogue as many examples as come to mind, and say some words about them in passing.

In the beginning there’s the Wizardry games, of course. I don’t actually know if it’s the first of the type, but it’s the earliest I can think of. Wizardry games using this format include, I believe, the first seven in the series; the 8th (and last in the core series) finally switched to a full 3D engine. There’s also some Japanese Wizardry games, and some of them use the style as well, but I can only personally vouch for one. That’s eight in total.

There’s some games that use Wizardry-style mazes as only a part of the experience. Some of the Ultima games do this. The Ultima predecessor Akalabeth uses them, and I know Ultima III does too for its dungeons. That’s two more.

Might & Magic II for Genesis, image from MobyGames.

There’s two major series of Wizardly-inspired games. The original Bard’s Tale series were blobbers in the truest sense of the term. That’s four: I, II, III and Construction Set. The hugely underrated Might & Magic series also used them for both dungeons and their game worlds up to V. That’s nine more, for a running total of 19.

On the NES there are some surprising examples of the form. I already mentioned Interplay’s Swords & Serpents, a unique and probably doomed attempt to make a Bard’s Tale RPG on a ROM-based system. There’s multiple oodles (boodles! froodles! zoodles! poodles!) of interesting things about that game, like its character-specific password system and its four-player support, but we don’t have the time here to get into that. In fact, I could say that about nearly this entire list.

Two of the most ridiculous kinds of characters to explore 1st-person dungeons are a super spy (as in Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode) and lightbulb-tonguing uncle to a weird and macabre family (as in Fester’s Quest), both also on NES. Adding them to the pile brings us up to 22.

I mentioned Phantasy Star on Sega Master System and Arcana on SNES. There’s also Shining in the Darkness on Genesis and Double Dungeons on the TG16. There’s at least one Madou Monogatari game that uses the system, but I’m only adding games that I can remember without Googling or looking anything up, so I’m only counting it once. We’re now at 27.

Xybots

There’s 3D Bomberman on the MSX, an early experiment in the Bomberman series where the mazes you’re in are 3D. In the arcade there’s Ed Logg’s Xybots, which was intended to be a Gauntlet sequel but the play ended up being different enough that he changed it to a sci-fi game. Xybots breaks the rules slightly because your character is visible, but it’s still that kind of grid-based, first-person maze. More recently there’s, hm… at least five Etrian Odyssey games? That brings the count up to 34.

Some more miscellaneous RPGs I mentioned last time: Dragon Wars, Eye of the Beholder, and Dungeon Hack. I particularly like Dragon Wars and Dungeon Hack, although for completely different reasons.

Dungeon Hack

Oh! Let’s not forget about the D&D Gold Box series, which use 1st person grid mazes for dungeon exploration. That includes Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secret of the Silver Blades, Pools of Darkness, Champions of Krynn, Death Knights of Krynn, Unlimited Adventures, and the Buck Rodgers game made in that style. There are other computer D&D games from the time, but they didn’t use that engine. These games also had other modes of exploration, and overhead-view combat, so they aren’t as tied to the format.

Finally there are some other miscellaneous games. Blobber-style mazes were a low-resource way of immersing the player in a labyrinth, even if there was nothing else in there of interest. My first exposure to the field was a C64 BASIC game called, natch, Labyrinth. I remember seeing a shareware DOS game called 3-Demon. The game that Strong Bad poked around in the Friendlyware video I linked last time is Killer Maze, and definitely fits the discretely granular bill.

It’s a good excuse to embed the video. (14 minutes)

So, all in all that’s 48 games completely from memory! But I’m sure there’s more; can you think of any others?

Wolfenstein 3D

When Wolfenstein 3D came out this entire style of world presentation immediately fell out of favor. Wolf 3D has very much that same kind of grid-based world, but no longer is your position locked to the center of each space. You can turn in angles of less than 90 degrees, and there’s more of a real-time immediacy to the game that’s a lot more engaging.

Wolf 3D pretty easily destroyed this genre. Almost no blobber mazes show up from that point on except for some edge cases that are explicitly calling back to the old style, like the later Japanese Wizardry games and Etrian Odyssey. It is interesting that, once computers became powerful enough to render worlds in a more fluid and immediate kind of way, it made these kinds of distinctive presentation shortcuts irrelevant. It’s kind of saddening.

EDIT: One I had intended to include but somehow left out is Dungeon Master, which xot reminded me of in comments!

Link Roundup 4/29/22

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

Cian Maher for IGN, on players who obsessively chase rare “shiny” variants of Pokemon.

Ted Litchfield for PC Gamer, on the disappointment of FFXIV‘s producer on player taunting.

Morgan Park of PC Gamer tells us Call of Duty has lost 50 million players in a year, a third of their base

Andrew Kiya of Siliconera noticed a tweet in which Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai revealed facts about the origins of the Kirby Dance (what dance? this dance).

Keith Stuart of The Guardian (wow, drebnar!) on why Sonic the Hedgehog is great.

Michael McWhertor for Polygon tells us that Yuji Naka was kicked off the Balan Wonderworld project six months before it finished, partly for bringing up quality issues. He mentioned possibly retiring from the games industry.

Steven Blackburn of Screen Rant informs us that some fans are working on a third season of the old Saturday Morning Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon show. That’s the “darker” one, with Princess Sally and Bunny Rabbot. The other one from the time, made for syndication, was sillier, and the podcast What A Cartoon did an episode on it with Ian Jones Quartey.

Jody Macgregor for PC Gamer on the D&D Gold Box games coming to Steam, and why they’re great.

And Jason Fitzsimmons of Ghostbusters News points us to a tweet about a fan project to hack the character of Winston Zeddemore into the Sega Genesis Ghostbusters game, where he had been originally excluded.