@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.

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster: Brandish

I still have to figure out some consistent way to differentiate things we’re linking to, in titles, from our own content. It’s making me uncomfortable how things we link to on other sites are generally not distinguishable from things we make ourselves. The site: title construction is the best I’ve come up with for that, although I also use it for our own subseries, like Sundry Sunday. Please, except this rambly prologue as an introduction!

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster writes lots of interesting stuff, and we’ve linked to her several times before. In fact I have a whole Firefox window devoted to pieces she’s made. This one is about the Super Famicom (and others) game Brandish, one of Nihon Falcom’s many interesting RPG experiments.

Brandish is played in a dungeon where each level is a map, and monsters appear on it, and you attack them in real-time, without going to a separate screen. That is to say, combat isn’t “modal.” When switches change the state of the dungeon, you see their results happen immediately. Areas blocked to you are shown as just plain wall until you reveal them.

These things all make Brandish seem almost like (here’s that word again) a roguelike. But Brandish’s dungeon isn’t random, but set; the game isn’t a generalized system like roguelikes often are, but has set scenario. That makes it seem like a lot of other early RPGs. And one weird thing about it that’ll definitely require some adjustment is, Brandish is programmed so that your character always faces up; if you rotate to face a direction, the dungeon rotates around you. But the game doesn’t use the Super Nintendo’s “Mode 7” rotation feature: the dungeon turns immediately, which is disorientating until you get used to it, and even, it’s still a little disorientating. Brandish probably works that way because it was originally a Japanese PC game, and to implement Mode 7 rotation would mean having to rework some graphics to reflect the different perspectives.

Here’s a Youtube video of a playthrough. Skip past the intro, and what I’m talking about should become clear:

And now you’re ready for Kimimi’s own piece on Brandish. She likes it! And I agree, it’s a very interesting system. Brandish was popular enough to get multiple sequels. If you want to learn more about the series generally, Kurt Kalata’s Hardcore Gaming 101 has a good introduction to them.

Kimimi the Game-Eating She Monster Covers Brandish

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.

The CRPG Addict Reaches Nethack 3.1

He’s been at this since the days of GameSetWatch’s run of @Play, but the CRPG Addict has finally reached Nethack 3.1, the game where Nethack reaches most of its final form. It’s true that it has gained features since then (especially weapon skills and splitting apart race and role from each other), but it was the version that introduced the current-day structure of the dungeon, added the many role-specific Quests, made the Wizard’s Tower a three level stronghold instead of just a little place in the mazes of Gehennom, put in the Bell, Book and Candle subquest, handed the Amulet of Yendor to the High Priest of Moloch, and put in the Elemental Planes and the current form of the Astral Plane.

Here are all his Nethack 3.1 posts to date:

Game 504: Nethack [3.1 series] (1993) – Beginning adventures

Nethack [3.1]: Blessed and Cursed – Discovering exercise, death by battery drain

Nethack [3.1]: Rust and Ruin – Beginning of very good game

Nethack [3.1]: Quest for Glory – Middle dungeon levels, Rogue level, Quest branch

Nethack [3.1]: Wish List – Exploring the lower regions of the main dungeon

Nethack [3.1]: Beyond This Place Of Wrath And Tears: from the Castle to Fort Ludios to entering Gehennom to killing Baalzebub

Nethack [3.1]: Nothing Lasts Forever – from killing the Wizard for the first time to getting the Amulet up to escaping the main dungeon for the Elemental Planes

Sundry Sunday: Breaking Bad as a 16-Bit RPG

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

Did I post this one before? An archives search doesn’t turn it up. It’s been in my topic list for a long time, but it seems I never actually post it it. Here it is! It was created by Doctor Octoroc, who still has a website, for CollegeHumor, which doesn’t!

The video is 11 years old, and doesn’t present all of the events of the series, I think because it hadn’t concluded at that point. Still, it may be entertaining.

Breaking Bad 16-Bit RPG (Youtube, 4 1/2 minutes)

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)

itch.io: Folder Dungeon

Folder Dungeon, on itch.io, is a short and not-too-difficult game where an adventuring cursor has to dig through the folder structure of a hard drive to find an important file. Each window is a room of the dungeon; entering a Door folder takes you to another room down. You can go back the way you came using the back arrow icon at the bottom of the window.

In addition to doors, rooms can contain items, which can be picked up by clicking on them. Gold is among the items, the value of the coin indicated by a number. Some items cost money; if they do, they’ll have a coin and a number on the item. Some items, notably Health Potions and Ice Cream, take affect immediately; they never enter your inventory, but work immediately on your stats whether you needed it or not.

And, some of the things in rooms are monsters. If you do something other than attack a monster by clicking on it, then every monster in the room has a percentage chance to attack you; if you attack a monster, then it always counter-attacks if it survived the attack, but other monsters in the room don’t get the chance to attack.

Somewhere in each folder structure is an Exit icon. When you find it, you can only enter it once all the monsters in its room have been defeated. You don’t have to defeat all the monsters in a room to leave it, but it does give the monsters in the room a chance to attack you.

The most interesting play mechanic is, every action you take generates “heat.” You can only take so much heat. If heat reaches your maximum capacity, you take one damage per action until you leave the level (which resets heat to 0) or you lower your heat by collecting an Ice Cream.

Note, as you can see in the above screenshot, there’s a display bug in the current version that cuts off the left and right sides of the screen. Or is it a bug? It didn’t actually prevent me from playing? Maybe it’s an aesthetic choice? Anyway, I managed to finish the game on my first attempt, but it was close.

Folder Dungeon (by Ravernt, itch.io, $0)

JRPG Junkie Describes Lost Sega Arcade RPGs

Another JRPG post! That’s two in a row, and it’s about some quite interesting games, including a lost Shining Force game. The website JRPG Junkie tells us about some Sega arcade games that fit the mold that sound like they would have been interesting to have tried.

Quest of D (image from JRPG Junkie)

Quest of D was a dungeon crawler where the player’s inventory was collected as physical trading cards, that were scanned into the game in order to use them. Shining Force Cross was similar in concept but without the cards; it lasted until 2016. And finally there was Soul Reverse, introduced in 2018.

The world of Japanese arcade games from around this time is largely a big dark area to me, and right around the time when the US arcade industry started its death spiral. It was also a time when server connectivity and online updates came into vogue, meaning when the servers went down, many of them ceased to be playable. It’s really sad that this has become essentially a lost age of gaming, at least to people outside of Japan. We probably couldn’t play them then, and we certainly can’t now.

Dungeons & Deckbuilding: Sega’s Lost Arcade RPGs (JRPG Junkie)

Basement Brothers Xanatalks About Xanadu

Falcom is possibly the greatest Japanese game publisher that’s barely known in the US. Recently Ys sequels have changed this a bit, but their earlier titles are still a hole in the knowledge of even some Western RPG fanatics. At least, I never had much of a chance to learn about them, other than through Hardcore Gaming 101’s as-usual excellent descriptions of the Dragon Slayer series.

Xanadu is a Dragon Slayer game. It’s actually Dragon Slayer II, but it plays nothing like the original. Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family, is one of the very few Dragon Slayer titles to get a release over the geographic and cultural divide, as Legacy of the Wizard on NES. It doesn’t play like the other games either. It was a tradition to make every Dragon Slayer game play very unlike the others. The way I see it, the series was as much about coming up with a new system to explore and master as it was about having new scenarios and locations.

Xanadu is also a ridiculously obtuse game, which is in keeping with the original. Lots of the Dragon Slayer line expected you to do obtuse things, things not explained to you, to proceed. I’ve played through Legacy of the Wizard, and can verify that it was hard, but compared to Xanadu it seems like a model of straightforward play. In Xanadu, right near the start, there is a place where you fall down a hole, walk left five steps, then double-back right to scroll a secret shop onto the screen, the only place in the entire game where you can buy and sell magic items. Its inventory system doesn’t use words, it’s just a sequence of numbers, indicating quantities, and you’re just supposed to know the order of the items they represent.

Xanadu, like some other prominent RPGs, is secretly about resource management. Each monster you find on the world map screens (which are side-view!) can only be defeated and looted a limited number of times. If you run them out, and are left without the items needed to finish the game, you’re just stuck. You can also get stuck in some areas if you just move the wrong direction. You can save and load the game, but doing so carries costs in gold pieces! The only way to escape this temporal-economic trap is to make a backup of your game disk, and restore your copy from it. I like this idea, I’ve always found the grind-until-you-win nature of many present-day RPGs a bit unappealing. I kind of wish more games now would take inspiration from some of these early efforts, where each game could have a radically different play style, and require the player apply some real strategy to win, but maybe without being quite so user-hostile.

Youtube channel Basement Brothers made a nice retrospective of Xanadu, and managed to complete the whole game, although by following a video walkthrough. It’s an essential window into a whole universe of RPGs we were denied at the time.

Xanadu (PC-88 Paradise) Falcom’s original classic, and Japan’s must-have 8-bit action RPG of 1985 (Youtube, 39 minutes)

Time Extension: Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Use European-Style Fantasy Worlds?

Time Extension has come up here a lot lately, hasn’t it? It’s because they so often do interesting articles! This one’s about the propensity of Japanese games to use medieval European game worlds, the kinds with a generally agrarian society, royalty, knights, and their folklore counterparts elves, dwarves, fairies, gnomes and associated concepts.

They often fudge the exact age they’re trying to depict, with genuine medieval institutions sitting beside Renaissance improvements like taverns and shops. Nearly of them also put in magic in a general D&D kind of way, sometimes institutionalizing it into a Harry Potter-style educational system.

Notably, they usually choose the positive aspects of that setting. The king is usually a benevolent ruler. It’s rare that serfdom and plagues come up. The general populace is usually okay with being bound to the land. The Church, when it exists, is sometimes allowed to be evil, in order to give the player a plot road to fighting God at the end.

Hyrule of the Zelda games is likely the most universally-known of these realms, which I once called Generic Fantasylands. The various kingdoms of the Dragon Quest games also nicely fit the bill. Final Fantasy games were among the first to question those tropes, presenting evil empire kingdoms as early at the second game.

Dragon Quest
(All images here from Mobygames)

John Szczepaniak’s article at Time Extension dives into the question by interviewing a number of relevant Japanese and US figures and developers, including former Squaresoft translator Ted Woolsey. I think the most insightful comments are from Hiromasa Iwasaki, programmer of Ys I and II, who notes that this Japanese conception of a fantasy world mostly comes from movies and the early computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima, that the literature that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons (which in turned inspired Wizardry and Ultima), especially Lord of the Rings and Weird Tales, were generally unknown to Japanese popular culture. Developer Rica Matsumura notices, also, that there is a cool factor in Japan to European folklore that doesn’t apply, over there, to Japanese folklore.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

It’s a great read, that says a number of things well that have been bubbling up in the back of my head for a long time, especially that JRPGs recreated both RPG mechanics and fantasy tropes at a remove, that they got their ideas second hand and, in a way similar to how a bunch of gaming tables recreated Dungeons & Dragons in their own image to fill in gaps left in Gary Gygax’s early rulebooks, so too did they make their versions of RPGs to elaborate upon the ideas of Wizardry and Ultima without having seen their bases.

Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Take Place In European Fantasy Settings? (timeextension.com)

Josh’s Favorite Games of 2022 — Best RPGs

We now turn to the RPG genre, that also helped while I was writing my book on RPG design. We have some very different takes that go from being old school, to not-so-old school design.

#3 Betrayal at Club Low

You may have played a lot of RPGs, but tell me, have you ever played one where you are a pizza spy trying to break into a club and may inadvertently become the greatest DJ ever known? Betrayal at Club Low is a trip through a strange world where you must use the power of your dice, and pizza, to get past different encounters. Upgrading your dice will give you a better chance at winning encounters, and the story will go differently based on what choices you choose and which encounters you win. There really is nothing else quite like this game, and it’s such a weird delight to go through, especially if you love pizza as well.

#2 Chained Echoes

The most “traditional” RPG on the list this year, Chained Echoes does a great job of mirroring and honoring classic JRPGs but does it in a way that is different the more you look under the surface. With a huge world to explore, challenging combat, and amazing pixel art, this is the game for JRPG fans who are looking for something new to play. While it’s a bit too traditional when it comes to encounters for my taste, it’s still a solid game.

#1: Fear and Hunger 2

I’ve already talked about my love/hate of the brutally difficult Fear and Hunger, and Fear and Hunger 2 continues that trend with more disturbing sights, challenging gameplay, and a whole new world to get lost in…and killed in. This is not for the faint of heart, or those looking for an easy time. This is a game where failing the tutorial will get your legs chopped off.

This is less of an RPG and more of a brutal puzzle for you to try and solve. One day, I need to sit down and try to learn both games. If you like your RPGs hard, and aren’t easily disgusted, there is no other series like it.

Romhack Thursday: Ultima Exodus Remastered

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

They have fallen into obscurity in the intervening decades, but it used to be that the Ultima games were some of the biggest RPGs around, and many still have fond memories of them. The story of the rise and fall of Origin Systems, once one of the biggest game publishers, and how now they’re just another of the hundred ignored lines on EA’s balance sheet, is not our business here today, but instead that of one fan’s effort to improve one of the less faithful adaptations: the NES version of Ultima Exodus.

Ultima and Ultima II (and their predecessor Akalabeth) were popular, but Ultima III was the first megahit version of the game, that could be considered to stand up today. Ultima I was pretty small, and Ultima II had a lot of crazy elements like space travel. Ultima III has a much more cohesive game world, a more detailed quest, and generally feels a lot more like what we would consider an RPG game now. Later games would build off of it and become even more popular, especially Ultima IV with its detailed morality system, and Ultima VII with its vast game world, depth of NPC interaction, and many system and UI improvements.

This thief looks a lot cooler here than they did in the NES original!

Back to Ultima III. One of its best-selling versions was the Famicom version in Japan, which had a bit of a media blitz around its release. Both the Ultima and Wizardry games had something of a second life on Japanese computer systems and consoles, where they would go on to sell millions of copies more. While EA’s ownership and neglect have meant that Ultima is mostly gone and forgotten*, in Japan new Wizardry games continue to be made, hewing to that series’ original dungeon crawl aesthetic.

* This is, honestly, partly to series creator Richard Garriott’s ownership of several important characters, meaning both parties have to agree to the other’s vision for any further official Ultima game to be made. And Garriott seems to be chasing fads lately; his most recent idea for a game utilizes that bane of all game design concepts, NFTs.

The font especially is much improved, over the very bland type used before.

So now you have a little idea of what Ultima is. The Famicom/NES version was a hit in Japan, but it differs from the computer version in many ways. This was pretty much the norm for the many Japanese-made Famicom adaptations of Western games. An article could be usefully written on all the ways Famicom ports of RPGs differ from their originals. Maybe later.

The character portraits are especially nice!

The point of this romhack is to change the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus so it more matches up with the computer versions. It uses its own patching system, so Romhacking.net’s web-based patching system won’t be of use.

So many little things have changed in this version that it’s hard to talk about! At the very least, the graphics have received a complete overhaul. The cartoony figures of the original, which were pretty silly even back then, look a lot more appropriate for a series with the stature and legacy of classic Ultima games.

Hey Chuckles!

NES Ultima Exodus is also notorious for a number of significant bugs, including the absence of an important clue, it being impossible to cancel a character’s turn without wasting it, poorly differentiated character classes, and the lack of some of the monsters of the computer version. These have been fixed in this version. Some other niceties have been added, including character portraits for the people you talk to, which is really going above and beyond for a game like this!

Seriously now: why haven’t the Ultima games been remade yet? Everything else has been remade, why not Ultima? Money is being left on the table!

It’s pretty much become the definitive console release of this landmark of computer RPG gaming! You should check it out if you have an interest in these things.