Posted by: Ben | January 7, 2010

Man vs Genre: Wizardry: Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord

The Facts

This was the first entry in one of the longest-running game series of all time (1981-2002), a series that I hadn’t heard of at all until a few days ago. I was vaguely aware of a game called Wizardry 8, but to me the title didn’t necessarily imply the existence of seven earlier games in the series. It turns out that Wizardry was written for the Apple II by Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead (a pair of coders so business-minded that they’re referred to in the manual as “Andrew Greenberg, Inc and Robert Woodhead, Inc”) and published by Sir-Tech in 1981. This is, as ever, the DOS port, obtained from Dodgy Pub Bloke and running under Dosbox. The manual is notable for a classic example of now-hilarious early 80’s hyperbole:

“WIZARDRY is a huge program – in fact at 14,000 lines of code it may be the largest single micro-computer game ever created. The entire WIZARDRY game system, including the programs used to create the extensive WIZARDRY databases, comprises almost 25,000 lines of code, and is the result of over one man-year of intensive effort.”

It also appears to be an early entry in the “Hundreds Of Hours Long” RPG subgenre, which is as good a reason as any not to play RPGs, ever.

The Cover

An exceptionally classy picture of a dragon.

The Lore

Not one moment of that whole man-year of development has been wasted on coming up with some bullshit fantasy storyline. “Very briefly, WIZARDRY lets you create and control a number of adventurers, who go off on expeditions in search of loot and glory.” And that’s your lot. I believe there might be some sort of mad overlord involved.

Wait a minute – what’s this?

“It was in the fall of the fifth year of the fanatical wizard Werdna that our campaign began. What season or year it is now, none of us knows. I believe we are on the ninth level of this accursed maze, but time and distance are ever shifting, and reality is fleeting.”

Actually there probably is a story somewhere, but I am unable to locate it right now.

Character Building

Unbearably complicated. Don’t make your fighters clever. You can’t be a ninja unless you reroll about eight hundred times. And for God’s sake, don’t create both Good and Evil characters, because they won’t get on. After many headaches, my roster of characters is as follows:

Keema Korma III, neutral Human mage and, in my mind at least, the same character who just conquered Ultima.

Strength 8
IQ 11
Piety 5
Vitality 10
Agility 8
Luck 9

Accompanied by the Korma family, all named after Dingles for ease of memory.

Butch Korma, neutral Human fighter

Strength 11
IQ 8
Piety 5
Vitality 8
Agility 12
Luck 9

Cain Korma, neutral Dwarf fighter

Strength 11
IQ 7
Piety 10
Vitality 10
Agility 5
Luck 12

Charity Korma, evil Elf thief

Strength 10
IQ 10
Piety 10
Vitality 6
Agility 11
Luck 6

Shadrach Korma, evil Gnome priest

Strength 7
IQ 7
Piety 16
Vitality 8
Agility 10
Luck 7

Marlon Korma, evil Hobbit mage

Strength 5
IQ 11
Piety 10
Vitality 6
Agility 10
Luck 15

The Game

Party assembled. Everyone ready? Here we go. “Entering the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord”.

We make camp outside the Proving Grounds, and select a formation. We’re putting the fighters at the front and the squishy spellcasters at the back. Then we remember we’ve forgotten to buy any weapons and run back off to town to buy some. Butch gets an Anointed Mace and some leather armour. Cain selects a Long Sword and Chain Mail. The other party members are more limited in their options. Charity takes a short sword and leather armour, Keema takes a staff and robes, Shadrach invests in an Anointed Flail and a large shield, and little Marlon buys the same as Keema, plus a Katino scroll which is meant to send monsters to sleep. As in Ultima, magic is likely to turn out to be extraordinarily expensive. If I actually was a wizard, in real life, and was going into the actual proving grounds of a mad overlord in order to prove myself and battle monsters, the first thing I’d buy would be an authentic suit of armour. When I’m rich and live in a big house I’m going to have a suit of armour at one end of the vestibule and a Dalek at the other. Actually that’s a bad idea because visitors will naturally assume that the suit of armour is supposed to be some kind of obscure Doctor Who monster. Like, for example, a Gundan Robot.

So, my characters are armed, equipped and ready to adventure. We’re walking through the dungeon. Mapping it, we turn to retrace our steps, trying to work out which direction to go in. We have an encounter with two Slimes. They couldn’t have been following us, because we surprised them. My fighters attack, while the others try to defend themselves. The first Slime is killed easily. The second soon follows, and we gain experience and steal their money.

Further along the corridor, we meet two Skeletons. Wonder if they’ll be any tougher? Not at all. Sadly they don’t seem to carry cash.

Bursting through a door we are surrounded by four Undead Kobolds. I need to go to Wikipedia now, because I don’t know what a Kobold is, except that it’s a common low-level enemy in fantasy-themed RPGs. It turns out to be a kind of Teutonic Brownie. As my characters draw their swords, I can’t help thinking of this as a genuine rite of passage. A fight to the death with my very first Kobold. Surely if this goes well I can skip straight to Baldur’s Gate?

Oh dear. The first round of combat is concluded. Cain is dead, and all four Kobolds are still standing. Time for some magic?

Round two goes slightly better. I seem to be able to cast as many spells as I like, so I’m not sure what the scroll I bought in the shop was all about. Two Kobolds are killed, but Charity is also deaded.

In Round Three I notice that Shadrach has a Dispell option. Checking the manual indicates that this is a handy method for getting rid of the undead. Butch kills the third Kobold, and Shadrach dispels the last one.
The Kobolds have left me a treasure chest. My characters inspect it cautiously, expecting trouble. “Stunner,” says Butch. “Trapless,” says Marlon. “Aaargh,” says Shadrach as he paralyses himself. Time for Keema, Butch and Marlon to lug the bodies of their companions back to the surface in the hope of getting them healed. I can afford to heal Shadrach, but not to resurrect Cain or Charity. We take their money and leave their bodies at the inn.

I could create some new characters – nobody has levelled up yet, after all – but that would be bending my own rules beyond what they were intended for. So my depleted team – Keema, Butch, Marlon and Shadrach – return to the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. This time they have a clear objective – to obtain 700 gold, which will be enough to revive Cain and Charity.

The first thing we find in the tunnels is a group of five “small humanoids.” Goblins, kobolds or children, we don’t care. We’re going to killem.

I have yet to work out the spellcasting rules, but our mages no longer seem to be capable of casting spells. A quick look at the manual confirms that what I should have done was sent my spellcasters to rest at an inn in order to restore their spells. It also confirms that I can still use the scroll Marlon bought last time, which effectively sends two of the small humanoids to sleep in Round One.

Mysteriously, by Round Two, Keema seems to have regenerated some spell points and can cast a spell. Two small humanoids are killed by our efforts, but it seems the other two have woken up.

Still, they’re all dead by Round 3, although Butch is down to his last three hit points. Everyone else is unharmed. Either I messed up when shopping or assigning stats, or Wizardry is living up to its name by being as biased against fighters as Ultima is against practitioners of the magical arts.

The five humanoids leave a chest behind. Based on Shadrach’s earlier injury I conclude that since safe detection of the contents of a chest is the preserve of a thief, we might as well just open the darn thing and take the consequences. Our fearless leader Keema opens it. The box promptly explodes, but only Butch and Marlon are injured. Time to return to the surface again. We only have 135 gold, so won’t be resurrecting any dead companions this time.

Butch sleeps in a cot in the inn for 5 weeks and comes out to find the others still waiting for him. Then Marlon goes in and sleeps for 3 weeks, he comes out and Keema and Shadrach nip into the stables for a quick nap. One at a time.

Instead of saving, we spend the rest of our cash on a shield for Butch, to reduce the chance of him dying and leaving us without a fighter. And it’s back to the Proving Grounds. Same shit, different day. Those small humanoids, they are alive again. This is growing tedious. They are easily killed. Their chest once again proves to be booby-trapped, and Keema is poisoned trying to open it. Back to town.

Hey! Butch levelled up, which is good because he’s our only fighter, and it’s also good because it’s motivating me to keep going down these dungeons. What is bad, not to say mysterious, is that when he levels up, his strength goes down.

I understand that contemporary magazines claimed that Wizardry offered hundreds of hours of adventuring, and given the slowness of the progress I’m making, that could be very nearly true, although as we trek to the surface and back, more members of the party level up. Experience points being considerably more plentiful than gold, we start to wonder about the value of expending a considerable financial investment on restoring two comparatively underpowered team members who will probably either hold back our progress or soon be killed again.

Part 2 is here


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