Dungeon Master

I will eventually run out of Fighting Fantasy books to read since the majority are out of print. So, when I do run out you’ll all have to nag Wizard Books to republish all the out of print ones. But I thought, hey, I can always post about computer RPGs to stave off the inevitable endpoint. So first off…

There are no candelabras in the game, but there's one here.

This party is mentioned in part of the backstory. They die, and get trapped in mirrors.

Dungeon Master is probably the shining dawn of the modern RPG. Or at least part of it, because there’s all sorts of things we value in modern games, like the ability to customise characters, actual characterisation, plots that aren’t just contained in the manual, and plots that aren’t about saving the world from the forces of evil… Hah, just kidding about that last one. There’s so few RPGs that aren’t about killing some evil wizard/demon/whatever that I’m struggling to think of a title other than Ultima IV.

But anyway, this is a first person, real-time, survival-oriented dungeon crawl. Those were novel things that Dungeon Master did so well people still adore it today. The plot is that there’s this guy called the Grey Lord and he’s split himself into two beings. One is Lord Librasulus (a jerk who represents order), and Lord Chaos (a jerk who represents some other abstract concept that you will have to guess). The “good” one wants to waste the “evil” one so he’s been sending adventurers into his former dungeon home to try and recover something called the Firestaff. Except they all die and get trapped in mirrors. But now the ghost of his apprentice, Theron, is going to go in there and free four of these heroes and guide them to success. Or not, because recovering the Firestaff is a bad idea, albeit one cut from the final game. The real goal: Fuse the two law and chaos dickheads back together and thus save the world from both of them.

Yes, you are Theron, a named and gendered protagonist. Who doesn’t actually have an once of characterisation dialogue or even existence in the game world outside the background story, which thus means Theron served no other purpose than to say, “we’re assuming the only men play these games, hah!” That is rather insulting, so we’ll pretend that didn’t happen.

Yes, now you know why I love Fighting Fantasy so damn much – those books have yet to tell me I’m not actually the person reading them. So, for the purposes of this review I’m not “Theron”, I am Me. I’m a ghost and I’m being sent into the dungeon to find and resurrect (they come back to life, hardened and skilled adventurers) or reincarnate (they come back to life but with their class levels turned into higher stats) four bloodthirsty lunatics to wage war on the forces of Chaos, unravel sinister traps, and probably end up hopelessly dead.

Onward to Dying When I Run Out of Food Too Far From a Spawn Room!

It’s a good thing I’m a ghost because the ceiling is really low in here. Also, it’s a good thing the top floor of the dungeon with the Hall of Champions is built out of glowing rock. Right, let’s find four idiots trapped in mirrors and drag them the hell out of there to do my bidding and fulfil my every perverted whim.

Don't hold your breath, it's just an RPG inventory and stats screen.

Syra would prove to be the most useless member of the party outside of being a drinks dispenser.

Thankfully my magic ghost powers let me see their statistics, the rank they have in the various skills, and also the exact amount of weight they can carry. Being a ghost has some perks.

Another stat screen. The excitement never ends!

That amulet boosts mana by three, meaning the mana-less front line fighters can be trained up to be wizards early on.

Unfortunately I can’t actually tell how much damage a weapon does, or what the magical items actually do, unless they change people’s stats. So this entire expedition to save the world from chaos and destruction is going to be one long and tedious exercise in guesswork.

Yet another stats screen. Don't worry, only one more to go.

I don’t know, I just get the feeling she’s not entirely original. Who cares though? A badass woman with sword is just who we need. We’ll find some proper armour as soon as possible.

The other thing I realise as I poke around the mirrors is that either these people threw all their good gear away, or they came in here woefully unprepared. No-one has 50 feet of rope and a ten-foot pole. Or in many cases, proper clothing. Or weapons.

Honestly, all these stats are meaningless to me.

The Ninja class is their only attempt to veil the D&D inspired nature of RPGs. It’s called Dungeon Master, for fuck’s sake, we know it’s based on D&D.

Right, four women plucked from their existence in a limbo world contained inside a mirror, and ready to follow my orders. One of my first utterly insane demands is that the women I choose to venture into certain doom stand close together in a square formation at all times. They may only move together as a group. The best part of this is that if one of them walks into a wall, they all walk into a wall. If one of them falls down a hole, all of them fall down a hole. This would probably be funnier if I could see them, but once I’ve resurrected my first adventurer I’m forced to only view the world through the eyes of one person at a time. Being a ghost sucks.

Right, now that I’ve resurrected four women with various abilities that don’t entirely suck I can descend into the dungeon proper and start killing things. Unfortunately this is a really dingy dungeon so torches, or magical spells that produce light, are essential.

Now it's just a black screen.

This is one of the more creepy aspects of the game until you’re high level.

I naturally picked two hardcore violent women who have a mana pool somewhere near zero to be my front line, and subsequently will be grumbling about their inability to cast spells for some time. Thankfully the decidedly combat-average women in the back row have wizard skills and can, in theory, throw fireballs. In practice they will probably throw a lot of rocks during the endless waves of combat. Assuming I can be bothered making someone pick all the rocks, arrows, shuriken, and drumsticks up over and over again.

I'm not going to explain what a mummy looks like.

This is the first monster. The traditional early game creature, Rattus Fuckallexperiencus, is found much later. Then your party dies.

I have to tell each member of my party – or rather, tell the party leader who then tells them – to attack, and how to attack, what runes to cast to form spells, what to eat and when to eat it, when to drink, and basically I’m doing more micromanaging than would be implied by some kind of metaphor comparing me to the head ant at a fresh carcass. Thankfully the first proper dungeon floor is mainly an easy walk from the start to the finish, with some low-grade puzzles, as if Lord Chaos had to warm up before making all the really lethal traps. Throw lever to close pit, find keys, kill shouty mushroom… you know the drill.

Relatively harmless but still creeps me out.

No really this is totally not like the D&D one because um… it… is… green?

In fact, thanks to my picking a ninja and actually letting her stick to ninjaing (i.e. stabbing things with pointy things), the party is soon swimming in unwanted and unneeded heavy weapons. The dungeon is awash with falchions and clubs, presumably left behind by the other hapless adventurers who were turned into mummies and screamers and other fun things. But all in all it’s a cakewalk. You’d almost think I’d done this before.

It’s the third floor where things heat up as a wall tells me to Choose Your Door, Choose Your Fate. There’s a series of portcullises between the party and the stairs down and presumably some keys in here somewhere. I decide to try and find a door that does not involve rock monsters.

It looks like a pile of rocks.

Too late, Rock Monsters.

What ensues is the by now standard Dungeon Master fight scene: Four women leaping forwards in formation to strike and then backwards in formation to get away before the pile of rocks can poison us. Yes, it’s a poisonous monster that looks like a pile of rocks. They’re extremely deadly. Also very hard to kill, so this involves a lot of hopping around and slowly retreating as the inexorable advance of a pile of rubble threatens to send my front line to poisontown. Thankfully poison bolts can be fired through portcullises and gaping pits are effective deterrents. Eventually all the monsters in the various challenge rooms are dead and the party has gained more completely useless gear than anyone could ever need. They’re also well on their way to stealing all of Lord Chaos’ cheese.

CHEESE.

We’re coming for all the fucking cheese under this fucking mountain!

And so didst the bold adventurers descend into the actual hard part of the dungeon, a floor filled with purple worms. Let me tell you about purple worms. They are huge, hard to kill, poisonous (are you noticing a theme?), and also don’t actually give you anything worthwhile when they die, just some barely nutritious worm rounds. You know what? I hate purple worms. It takes ten minutes to kill one, and if Sonja isn’t getting poisoned Leyla is nearly dying from being chewed on. The best part is that worms appear if you stand on certain tiles. The triggers for the wormotrons are invisible, and often involve the extremely unfair trick of having them in corridors. This means the tactic of slowly retreating is doomed to failure since the merry band of idiots will inevitably trip the wormotron trigger as they back away from the first pair of worms. But in the end they triumph, and proceed down to the next floor, which promptly drops the party through a pit in a room of ever-moving holes.

The wall is laughing at me!

Actually, I climbed down with the rope to take this screenshot because I’m too skilled and experienced to fall in. Then later I fell in. Over, and over, and over again.

But it’s okay, all that’s needed is some patience and care to trip the holes in the right way to get through. We can take our time, it’s not like there’s any flying snakes.

You just know that when we can genetically engineer wings onto things some idiot will put them on poisonous snakes.

ACTUALLY IT IS EXACTLY LIKE THERE ARE FLYING SNAKES.

Yes, it’s poisonous too.

But not to worry, after the last floor everything down here is trivially easy to take out. It could also be the case that the party is now so loaded with weapons and armour that they no longer need to worry about being killed. Of course even that’s not an issue, since there’s altars of rebirth that conveniently resurrect dead adventurers, provided their bones are thrown onto the altar… and assuming the survivors can trek all the way back to the last altar without being taken out by the eternally spawning worms.

Fully loaded out adventurers are happy adventurers.

Armed and dangerous and on a mission to steal all Lord Chaos’ cheese.

Overconfidence naturally proves to be the downfall of this expedition, as a particularly vicious flying snake takes out the two who can actually fight, leaving the slightly hopeless spellcasters to lug their corpses back through the dungeon. But the slime throwing slime monsters that have appeared between them and the staircase have other ideas.

Wrapup

Is it a good game? Yes, I think so. It’s still a good game. It should tell you something that decades after I first played it I still get drawn in to rampaging through the dungeon and trying to finally deal with Lord Chaos. It’s bloody hard but I think the fun is more in getting there rather than winning. Though I would say that, since I haven’t ever finished it.

There’s an expansion called Chaos Strikes Back which I refuse to try again just now, because I don’t think there’s ever been a game so absolutely, incredibly fucking evil. You start in the dark, with no items, and if you don’t immediately execute a set of manoeuvres you get cornered by some ultra-powerful purple worms. If you stay put, you get surrounded by the worms. Oh, and the party starts on a wormotron switch. The official sequel, Dungeon Master 2, is not as enjoyable as the original and Chaos Strikes Back. Or at least, I can never get into it.

One of the things that makes Dungeon Master more difficult that other RPGs is that there’s absolutely no clue in the game what the skills do, or how good the armour is. Thanks to the obsessed fans, this information is all readily available these days so I spent some time learning how the attack skills work and wow, is it ever easier to play with that information. If I was playing this for serious and not just to goof around to get some screenshots, I’d have opted to reincarnate the characters instead of bringing them back with class levels. A little bit of extra work at the start of the game makes for a better party long term (nb: don’t do this in Chaos Strikes Back, you will die).

Something that stands out today is how quiet the dungeon is. There’s almost no noises apart from the occasional clicks of switches and clattering of doors (they’re all sliding double doors or vertical drop doors), monsters saying “raaah!”, spells going off, and the attacks. It’s a bit strange, actually, but shows how lucky we all are to have fancy things like full sound effects and more than two frames of animation for everything. It’s still great though, so I suppose those are luxuries and not necessities for an immersive game.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: It seemed normal way back when, but having to pick the spells up piecemeal in the dungeon makes no sense.

Ridiculous Battle: The rock monster that chased me back to a pit that had re-opened, which I had to climb down into to escape, and then I spent and hour – an actual, real-world hour – trying to heal the party up and stay alive killing it. Then I met another.

Victory: How would I know? I still can’t finish the bloody game!

What Was I Thinking? Not thinking up new categories for the wrap-up. There’s a limit to how far this stretches to computer games. Oh okay, something to do with the game: I determined via the wonders of the internet where a wormotron switch was and then still went backwards over it, remembering just afterwards that I couldn’t run away on that floor.

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One Response to Dungeon Master

  1. Ed Jolley says:

    Yes, now you know why I love Fighting Fantasy so damn much – those books have yet to tell me I’m not actually the person reading them.

    I can think of five FF books you’re not going to be happy with, then. But only one of them has been reprinted.

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