Treasures of the Savage Frontier: Red Menace

From The CRPG Addict

Imagine what the Zhentarim could accomplish with Twitter.
Treasures of the Savage Frontier gives us a plot in which an authoritarian regime from far to the east collaborates with local plutocrats and religious fanatics to wage a war of mis-information, thus demoralizing and destabilizing the free people of the west, ultimately effecting changes in leadership. Ah, the wild imaginings of fantasy!
Indeed, the axis of the Zhentarim, the Hosttower of the Arcane in Luskan, and the Kraken Society of the Trackless Sea has done such a thorough job planning this campaign against the Lords’ Alliance that one wonders why the Zhentarim attempted a more conventional invasion in Gateway to the Savage Frontier. (I think those three are the key partners. I’m not sure if the pirates from Luskan are a fourth organization or whether they’re associated with the Hosttower or the Krakens. Also, the Temple of Bane is somehow involved, but they just seem to pop up any time an evil plan is afoot.) Remember, no significant time passed between the party winning Gateway and getting sucked into this new conflict. The schemers were able to launch their Plan B so immediately that the game mostly consists of the party mopping up damage already done.
Vital to the evil plans are a series of documents–for some reason called “lucky papers”–that describe the axis’s plans for each city in the Lords’ Alliance (or, at least, most of them). To fully read the papers, you have to have three gems–blue, red, and green–each color carried by a different faction’s agents. I believe green was the Hosttower, red was the Zhentarim, and blue was the Kraken Society. When you fight a group of people carrying these gems, you always get the color of the first enemy that you kill. After that, everyone else present shatters their gems so that the party won’t get a complete set.
You almost have to admire the enemy forces. One of their number having fallen, they assume they’re all going to die, and they think of duty first.
As Null Null pointed out in a premature comment, but I soon discovered anyway, the party’s prioritization of mages means that you end up killing a lot of green-crystal holding enemies first, which makes it harder to get the other two crystals unless you specifically target them. Once I realized what was happening, I used “Hold Person” spells to paralyze and then kill Zhentil Lords and Kraken agents during first combat I could get their gems.
And the color red is associated with our primary enemy–what will they think of next?
I didn’t get all three until nearly the end of this session, but once I had two, I could take a pretty good stab at what the various papers said. I don’t think any of them were fully necessary to “solve” their associated cities, but they all added some fun background to what was going on.
Even missing one gem, you can mostly make out the enemy’s plan: “If we lose Llorkh, we will bring forces to lay siege to Waterdeep . . .”
When I last wrote, I had mostly finished with Loudwater, where I had simply stopped on my way between Llorkh and Secomber. A rematch with the harpies went in my favor, and I cleared out an area of undead (very easy with three characters capable of turning) for some grateful residents in exchange for a Cloak of Protection +2. (I always forget the rules of cloaks and rings of protection if you already have magic armor. Some combination of them do not stack, although I’m not sure how saving throws are affected.) Ultimately, I’m not sure there was anything necessary in the city.
No adventurers before me had clerics of Level 6 or above, apparently.
I moved on to Secomber, which turned out to be less than a half-city (coordinates occupying only 7 x 15). There was one major battle with axis members, difficult because they had multiple mages and were arranged in multiple groups. Initiative is vital in such battles. If the mages are able to get off a few “Lightning Bolts” or “Ice Storms” before I can nullify them, the battle often results in a reload. I find myself using ranged weapons more in Treasures than in previous games, always attempting to strike each mage before he or she can cast.
We visited Amanitas, who told us that ambassadors from Neverwinter and Mirabar were traveling to Waterdeep to discuss the situation, and that we should meet them in Leilon to escort them. He also gave us a magic crown that would allow us to communicate with him without walking all the way back to Secomber. It added a “Crown” option to the party’s encampment menu.
It’s nice to see Amanitas living in such privation while we do all the work.
At this point, I had the choice to head directly for Leilon or to take routes through other cities first. I chose the latter option because I wanted to test how well the game lived up to its open-world nature. I get annoyed with games that pretend to be open-world (allowing you to travel anywhere) but in reality enforce a certain linearity in encounters. In Gateway, for instance, visiting a couple of cities out of order screwed up a plotline with a dwarf NPC. A good game separates the territory from events that occur within the territory, but the Gold Box titles have been wildly inconsistent in how they handle this.
Here, they seem to have done a decent job of anticipating a rogue player. By visiting Daggerford before Leilon, I solved a part of the game earlier than anticipated, but not in a way that had an effect on other encounters. Daggerford is referenced in one of the “lucky papers,” with the author saying that the axis would have to control Daggerford and the Way Inn to besiege Waterdeep from the south. Sure enough, when I arrived, I found Zhentil troops patrolling the streets and most of the key figures of the city locked up. 

I sense that the game’s artist is going for a certain theme.

There were about half a dozen fixed battles with Zhents, manticores, fire giants, cyclopes, and margoyles as I slowly cleared the city. Another large final battle with the same composition as Secomber finished clearing the area. I found the Duke of Daggerford huddled in a secret area. After the final battle, in a rare timed encounter, I had to chase down a party of Zhentarim getting ready to leave the city and warn their allies at the Way Inn that I’d be coming.
Complete non-sequitur, but I used to think the lyrics to Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” were: “It never rains in California / But, girl, don’t they warn ya / Big horse, manticores.”
There seemed to be no way to get into Waterdeep, where some kind of alarm was going off, so we continued up the road to Leilon. The enemy documents said that they planned to kidnap the ambassadors and blame it on the party, this being the sort of world where proven heroes can be undone by a forged scrap of paper. We got attacked by gryphons in a stable near the entrance, and I realized this is also the kind of world where if you get attacked by gryphons the moment you enter a city, you don’t know if that means something has gone wrong in the city, or that’s just the kind of danger the residents of the Forgotten Realms live with.
We walked into a tavern, where a group of Waterdeep guards hailed our arrival as the “Heroes of Ascore!” and invited us to join the party. As a player, I was screaming “no!,” but my guileless party took them up on the offer and soon found themselves unconscious from drugged food. The next morning, they awoke in a bare room with a locked door. (Of course, the evil guards had not chosen to relieve us of our magical weapons or valuable gems or jewelry.) Ghost tricked the guards into opening the door by setting a small fire.
It would have been fun to know what “Sick Trick” and “Laugh Trick” did, but Irene happened to be walking by when I got this choice . . .
As we escaped, we noticed that the guards were probably just wearing Waterdeep uniforms and were not, in fact, Waterdeep soldiers. After several battles with these fake guards and their giant allies, we escaped back into the city and found that the Zhent allies were gone and services were back to normal. Although there were some weird combats with specters an spiders on the west side. I guess every city has its slums to clean up even in absence of evil occupiers.
We checked in with Amanitas (via the crown), who suggested we go back to Waterdeep and investigate rumors that Waterdeep soldiers have been pillaging local farms. When we arrived and demanded to see Lord Piergeiron (leader of the Lords’ Alliance), we were instead taking to a gruff guy named–no kidding–“Fell Hatchet,” who denounced us all as spies and demanded that we be taken to the Anchor of Justice.
The “lucky paper” outlines the Zhentarim plan for Waterdeep.
I would think that my relatively-high-level characters would have something to say about that, but instead, we got an absurd scripted sequence in which the entire party was chained to an anchor and thrown into the harbor–again without being stripped of our equipment and valuables. But within moments, recounted in the longest journal entry that I can remember (one full page and half of a column on another), we were rescued by sea elves and released in a set of caverns below the city.
The game forgets that some of the PCs are female.
The caverns took a while. Because of so many areas taken up by water and other obstacles, the previous 16 x 16 maps had been easy to explore without mapping, but I had to make a crude one here thanks to all the one-way doors, secret doors, magically-locked doors, and spinners. I’m not a huge fan of spinners, which go all the way back to Wizardry, but if you’re going to implement them, it’s best to do it subtly, so the player doesn’t realize he’s going a different direction until he’s mapped on for a while. The Gold Box approach is to have the characters announce immediately that something has gone amiss.
Nice and subtle, Gold Box.
The caverns included encounters with spiders, giant slugs, and carrion crawlers. As we neared the exit, we found some Zhent guards and hellhounds.
Ghost is still a little behind the curve.
We finally made it to the exit. Instead of getting to explore the city of Waterdeep as a whole, however, we were confined to a single dock taking up only about a third of a standard map. It was a weird place. Again, I don’t know if the enemies we encountered had anything to do with the evil in the area, or that’s just the way the docks are in Waterdeep. We had to pay a fee to enter in the first place. One of the taverns was run by a group of women who again morphed into greenhags–what is it with this game and this particular enemy? The only temple was a Temple of Mask, and we had to give money to a beggar to learn its password. The docks were swarming with hill giants and fire giants. And in one of the warehouses, we found ourselves face-to-face with a fire dragon.
Having stumbled upon him with no warning, our first battle resulted in the death of two characters. Upon a reload, I had them cast “Resist Fire” first, which improved our odds considerably, and the dragon went down easier than the average Zhent fighter.
Well, at least he’s not under-powered.
It’s worth noting that the docks also had a cartographer who sold maps to (I presume) future areas, including the Tunnels of Orlumbor, Firedock, the homes of the Luskan high captains, the Farms of Longsaddle, and a generic “treasure map.” I don’t remember anything like this in a previous Gold Box game.
I’ll have to look for this configuration.
I’m not sure we really solved the Waterdeep problem, but Amanitas suggested that we liberate Daggerford and the Way Inn next. Having already taken care of the former, we went to the latter (the southernmost location). It consisted of a half-map for its lower floor and quarter map for its upper one. Predictably, the owner and the employees had been locked up by Zhent forces, and we slowly worked our way around the large building, liberating them. Enemies included otyughs, Zhentil lords, Hosttower mages, margoyles, and Kraken masters. I think we got the last of the gems in one of these fights. Eventually, we cleared everyone and freed the owner, Dauravyn Redbeard, who gave us some Bracers of AC 2.
We target a “Fireball” at some otyughs and margoyles.
Our final expedition took us to the twin cities of Yartar and Triboar, which apparently have a long history of practical jokes against each other, which the Zhent have exploited to make it seem like they’re escalating into something more serious. The “lucky paper” outlines the plan as to kidnap the Waterbaron of Yartar, implicate Triboar, and then circulate rumors that the kidnapping is in fact a “false flag” operation by Yartar as an excuse to conquer Triboar.
I suspect that the encounters play quite differently depending on which city you explore first. I chose Triboar first, and the party found a city getting ready for war. But we soon found the captured Waterbaron, who in turn demanded that we take him immediately to the Lord Protector of Triboar, and between the two of them, they worked out their issues and both cities became relatively sedate places with the usual selection of shops and services.
This same location will sell you things after you solve their problems, which is a nice dynamic use of territory.
My characters are all Level 9 at this point, except for my Level 8 paladin. (And yet Siulajia, Level 9 herself, still loves him.) My clerics only have one level to go, but my paladin, thief, and fighter each have three and my mage and ranger have two. The average experience point total is around 250,000, which means we’ve only gained 40,000 since the game began. The idea of the ranger ever getting to 650,000 or the paladin ever reaching over 1 million (needed for their respective Level 11s) seems impossible.
Other than the equipment I mentioned above, everyone has found helms +2 by now. Somewhere, I got a two-handed sword called the Sword of Stalking +4, which I gave to Broadside the paladin. I don’t know what the “stalking” part means. Ghost, my fighter/thief, acquired some Boots of Speed. I generally insist on keeping my thief character in leathers even when the game rules don’t require it, but I’ve been paying for it all game with Ghost knocked out in a lot of combats. In the dragon’s hoard, I found some Redflame Armor +2, and since it doesn’t explicitly tell me what it is, I’ve decided to pretend it’s leather and give it to Ghost. Because he’s one of the few characters without a two-handed weapon, he also has the Squid Shield +2 that I got from Yartar. Again, I don’t know if the “squid” part means anything. Everyone else has magic weapons and armor, at least +2, but nothing unique.
Ghost’s inventory. Do we think the texture background instead of the black screen adds anything?
I’m enjoying combats in this game even more than the typical Gold Box title, partly because my mage capabilities seem so nerfed  My plans to dual one of my clerics to a mage were stymied by low intelligence for both characters, so I’m going to have to solve the game with just the one. And while she has the typical complement of useful spells, Treasures doesn’t offer any Rings of Wizardry or other mechanisms for getting bonus spells, so I don’t feel like I have quite the arsenal that I usually do. I haven’t even had a chance to memorize “Haste” yet–and I haven’t seen a single mage scroll that would allow me to memorize (or cast) spells outside of the normal leveling-up process. All of this means that my fighters and clerics take a much greater role in combat, including (as I mentioned before) using ranged weapons to keep enemy mages inert, spreading out to avoid vulnerability to “Fireballs” and “Ice Storms,” maximizing back stabs, making better use of cleric spells, and so forth. It’s rare even in random combats that I can just ALT-Q the battle and write a couple of blog paragraphs while my characters duke it out.
My selection of mage spells is powerful but not apocalyptic.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • The various establishments in the cities have more florid descriptions in Treasures than I remember in previous Gold Box games.
Past games would have just said “Tavern.”
  • Most taverns only offer options to “fight” and “leave,” which also happened in Gateway. Had the programmers at Beyond ever been to a tavern?
Ale? Is ale an option?
  • I haven’t found any magic shops yet, although one of the “adventurers’ shops” (a useless place that sells non-magic boots and belts and such) sold Cloaks of Protection +1.
  • In between Waterdeep and Leilon, we had a random encounter with a seer named Rabgar. He charged us with “the quest of the three dungeons” and told us to “seek the dwarves throughout the land.” Later, we met some dwarves who told us where to find the first dungeon north of Daggerford. We entered it and followed the dwarves’ hints for the right set of doors to get us out, but all we did then is enter and leave. We didn’t find any treasure or fight any battles. Now the dungeon is gone. We have new instructions to find the second one, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort.
The dungeon just confronted us with a set of doors. But “solving” the puzzle just meant exiting the dungeon, which we didn’t have to enter in the first place. What was the point?
  • Outdoor encounters include the bulette, which as we all now know, is pronounced “bul-AY.” Don’t ask why. It’s a sensitive issue.
  • In the last entry, I said how much I appreciated the pre-combat encounter text. Its quantity and quality mostly continued into this session, but there were clearly times that the writers ran out of ideas. I guess there are only so many dice games that you can interrupt.
Don’t waste a lot of time on this puzzle. It was two hellhounds and two cyclopes.
  • The game requires a tedious copy protection exercise every time you start, but at least it no longer draws its answers from journal entries you haven’t read yet. All of the answers are from the pre-journal part of the text.
Treasures of the Savage Frontier features what is arguably the first “romance” in an RPG. I remember some previous games that would let you engage prostitutes (e.g., Empire II, Wasteland) and a couple of games in which you were either had a partner as part of the backstory (Elvira II) or got to marry the princess in the end (The Dragon & Princess, Zeliard, Prophecy of the Shadow). But I can’t remember a previous game in which an optional romance develops between a PC and NPC during the game.
Ah, yes, the old “close your eyes and nod occasionally” trick. Sorry to break it to you, Siulajia, but he was thinking about Batman for most of that conversation.
The romance is entirely passive, however. At various intervals, when camping, the game notes that the lead male character and Siulajia are spending time together–talking, flirting, laughing, and so forth. Eventually, the game had Broadside stand up before the rest of the party and announce that he and Siulajia were in love. While acknowledging this could make some things “awkward,” he expressed hope that the rest of the party would “accept us as a couple just as you accepted us before.”
Not as awkward as trying to remember how to spell and pronounce her name.
Strangely, we now had an option to accept or reject the couple. Just for fun, I tried “reject.” The embarrassed Siulajia leaves the party. Broadside, “shaking with rage,” announces that he will fulfill his vow to complete the mission but that he will never forgive the rest of the party–never!! I reloaded of course and accepted, mostly because I didn’t want to lose a fighter.
I guess if the lead character is female, the romance plays out similarly with Jarbarkas. The whole episode is okay, but I rather that the player has an input into such things. I don’t like how often this game hijacks my character’s mouths for its own text. It’s fine when it does it for Siulajia, because she’s not my creation, but I’m supposed to be role-playing the rest of this party.
Amanitas’s opinion about where we should go next.
According to the game map, I have six cities left to visit–Longsaddle, Neverwinter, Port Llast, Luskan, Mirabar, and Fireshear–plus something called the “Ice Peak,” plus the islands of Mintarn, Orlumber, and Ruathym. So despite having covered what seems like a lot of territory in this entry, we still have several to go.
Time so far: 11 hours

Original URL: