Game 31: Swords and Sorcery (1978)

Monsters on the battlements from left to right: demon, werewolf, zombie,
goblin, dragon, unknown, and wizard.

Ah, that familiar orange glow. Despite all the grief that the various PLATO CRPGs have given me  – I’m looking at you Moria, and you The Game of Dungeons – going back to that system almost feels like going home. There’s something warm and comforting about it.  It could be Stockholm syndrome, or it could just be that the best PLATO games are so much better than their contemporaries on home computers. It’s one of those.

(While I’m on the topic of Moria, Ahab over at Data Driven Gamer has just started playing it. If you didn’t get enough of that game during the eight months that I was immersed in it, that blog has you covered.)

Today’s game is Swords and Sorcery, which as far as I can tell is the second-last PLATO game I’ll be covering. It was developed by Donald Gillies, who was a student at Urbana High School at the time, where he had access to PLATO. Its inspiration was a game called think15, created by Jim Mayeda, which is another one we have to chalk up as having been deleted by an overzealous system administrator. Following think15 was another game called think2, which Gillies describes as running incredibly slow. Development of Swords and Sorcery started in 1976, but the full game wasn’t playable until 1978. Thankfully, Gillies made the game available again on back in 2003, so we can still play it today.

 Apparently, this lineage of games is heavily influenced by Star Trek from 1971, which is a very important piece of early gaming that I’ve never actually played. In that game, you fly the Starship Enterprise around a map with 8×8 quadrants, blowing up Klingons and seeking refuge in starbases. Swords and Sorcery takes the same idea and applies it to the fantasy genre.

There’s no back-story in the Help file (no Help file at all, which is unusual for PLATO games, which normally have manuals that go into excruciating detail). It’s set “1200 years ago,” and you play a warrior or a knight undertaking missions for the king. These missions take place in a forest, and usually involve killing a certain number of a specific monster, except for a character’s first mission which requires chopping down trees or collecting treasure chests.

Before you are given a quest, the king will ask you to determine the dimensions of the forest you’ll be exploring. You can go as small as a single screen (1×1). I’m not sure what the upper boundary is on size; I’d test it out, but I don’t want to get locked into a mission that might take me over an hour to complete. The larger the forest, the more monsters you have to kill to complete the mission, and the higher the reward you get from the king when you finish. I generally default to a 2×2 configuration, which is 4 screens. In the note files for the game, Gillies says that playing with a single screen is the most efficient way to advance, but I find that I rely on shifting from one screen to another quite a lot to survive. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver one just one screen.

Moving around the screens takes a bit of getting used to. You need to type M (for move), followed by a direction, followed by the desired speed. You can move in all eight directions, using a number pad (or the arrow keys if you only want to go north, south, east or west). If you don’t have a number pad the directions are mapped to different keys, but I can’t remember what those are. The speed you set determines how many steps you move in one turn. Normally you can move from 1 to 3 steps, but by using adrenaline (which you can buy or find in phials) you can move 4 or 5. The trickiest thing to master is the inertia mechanic, where once you start moving in a direction you keep moving that way until you stop or change direction. I spent a lot of time early on killing myself by bumping into trees, because I couldn’t figure this out. Once you get the hang of it it’s not too bad, as you can stop your movement by pressing 0.

Loads of monsters, three chests, a Magic Circle on the far right,
and me at the bottom, surrounded.

Each screen will be filled with monsters, which will move towards you and try to kill you. Melee combat is a simple matter of hitting S (for sword) and choosing the direction you want to swing. Either you do enough damage to kill the monster, or you don’t and it gets to retaliate. The weakest monsters are goblins, with about 10 hit points. Moving up from there are thugs, zombies, werewolves, dragons, wizards, and demons. Worst of all are the invisible demons, which have about 10,000 hit points, deal almost 2,000 damage per hit, and can’t be seen. I’ve lost a number of characters to them without even realising I was being hit.

You can attack monsters from a distance with arrows, which do more damage than your sword early on. Arrows can be fired the length of the screen in eight directions, but they’re in short supply; you need to buy them or find them. There are magic arrows that do extra damage, and can fire through multiple foes.

Some screens have treasure chests, which are opened by pressing T when you’re next to one. Most of them contain bags of gold, but occasionally you’ll find gems, jewels, or a magic item. Gems and jewels can be sold, and are extremely valuable. Much like original Dungeons & Dragons, finding valuable jewels is the quickest way to advance in experience. Magic items include swords, shields, boots of flying and the magic lamp (which allows you to see invisible enemies). I’ve found a few cursed weapons as well. Your character will normally default to the best weapon and shield, but a cursed item will force you to use it instead.

The forest will have a number of Magic Circles, which are vital to your success. Once you step on a Magic Circle, you can’t be damaged by attacking monsters. You can retaliate, though, so it’s a good place to fight back against those monsters that are more powerful than you. You can also sell gems and jewels here, trading them in for bags of gold. The Magic Circles are also where you can buy experience points (1 gold piece buys 25), arrows, and adrenaline. You can also pay for the ability to fly, but this isn’t something I’ve tested out much yet; the one time I did it I accidentally left the forest and was executed by the king for failing my mission.  If your sword breaks (which occasionally happens during combat, even to magic swords), and you don’t have a spare, you can buy one here or beg to have the king send you a replacement if you don’t have enough gold. A sword costs 50gp, but you’re better off spending that money on experience points, then begging for a free sword. Speaking of swords, don’t swing one at a magic circle; the circle will become hostile, and you can’t use it any longer.

Enjoying the protection of a Magic Circle.

Experience points are the most important thing in this game. Not only do they measure your progress, but they double as your hit points. You can buy them, and earn them by killing monsters, but every hit you take reduces them, and if you go below 0 you’re dead. It’s a fairly elegant distillation of the Dungeons & Dragons system, in which earning treasure grants you experience points that allow you to gain levels and more hit points. Swords and Sorcery does away with levels, lets you spend your treasure on experience directly, and uses that experience total as your hit points. A simplified system like this works for a simpler game.

I found this game to be very Deadly at the start, to the point where I started to despair of ever making any progress.  The first mission can be tough, because you begin the game with 0 experience points. Any damage will kill you, even bumping into trees as I mentioned before. Combat is right out, because you start out not being able to do enough damage to kill even a lowly goblin in one hit, and the return strike will absolutely be fatal. One method of survival is to outmaneuver the enemy, and either collect the required treasure (or chop the required amount of trees) without entering combat. Another is to try to nab a treasure chest and then find a Magic Circle, where you can buy some experience and arrows. The third method, the one I eventually came to favor, is to find a Magic Circle and use its protective power to kill your enemies without taking any damage.  Also useful is switching from one screen to another; you’ll never be attacked on your first move into a screen, and the layout will rearrange every time you enter. So if there’s a Magic Circle that’s too hard to get to, just leave the screen and return and it might be in a more convenient spot.

My current character.

Using these tactics I’m making slow and steady progress. My current character has about 130,000 experience, and is mostly being given missions to kill Demons. I’m enjoying it quite a bit; it’s not the sort of game that dominates my thoughts when I’m doing something else, but when I do play it it’s very easy to get into a rhythm and lose a few hours. It has that thing where a mission is just short enough that it’s always tempting to play just one more. I could probably finish this up in one post, but I want to keep playing, and I suspect that there are more powerful enemies that I haven’t encountered yet. I’ll give it one more week and see how it goes.