From CRPG Adventures

It’s time to call it a day for Oubliette. This is something I need to do for my own sanity, because I very nearly decided to persevere with it and try to map all ten dungeon levels. I could probably do it if I applied for a few more cyber1 log-ins and used them to create multiple characters. It would take a long time, though, and it would also be setting a dangerous precedent for multiplayer games. I may have decided differently if the game had an end goal, but as far as I’m aware there’s nothing to achieve in it beyond obtaining loot and more loot. So this is me dusting my hands of Oubliette, and PLATO in general for the time being, albeit reluctantly.

I had set myself two realistic goals when I started the game: try every character class, and map the first level. I managed to do both, so here’s a map of Oubliette dungeon level 1.

Oubliette dungeon level 1

As you can see (and as I’ve mentioned before) this game pioneered a lot of the tricks that Wizardry and Bard’s Tale (among others) will put to irritating use in the years to come. There are plenty of secret doors, which can only be found by bumping into walls (or using a light spell if you have one). There are pits, which damage you with no warning and no way to avoid them even if you know they are there (although there is a levitation spell for mages that I never got to try out, and a detect traps spell for clerics that might work). The teleporters move you to another location on the same level, and with no way to display your coordinates, mapping is the only method of figuring out where you are. Thankfully each teleporter sends you to a fixed location, so once you’ve worked out where they send you they become less of a nuisance; some of them are even helpful for getting quickly back to the castle. The darkness squares extinguish your light source, or blind you temporarily if you have infravision. Finally, the spinners turn you in a random direction when you enter the square, and are a nightmare for accurate mapping; the game doesn’t display your coordinates or provide a means of telling what direction you’re facing, so I only discovered some of the spinners when it became obvious that my map was incorrect.

I found the stairs to level 2, and did quite a bit of exploration there as well. Not only are the monsters stronger, but the pits are deeper as well. On level 1 the pits dealt roughly between 3 and 12 points of damage, whereas those on level 2 were routinely doing 20 points. My character at the time only had about 50 hit points, so my mapping of level 2 involved a lot of returning to Ligne Castle for healing. Some of the pits were positioned so that the area beyond was a dead end, leaving me with no choice but to suck up the damage on the way back as well. There’s a level of deviousness to the dungeon designs that hasn’t been seen in any CRPGs before this one.

I died before I was able to map the entirety of level 2 (poisoned by giant centipedes), but I found a fan-site that has all of the maps, and a lot of other useful information. This is their map of level 2.

Pits! Chutes! Stairs! Improbable Architecture!

As you can see, this level presents another first: walls that spell out words when the level is fully mapped. The other levels all have interesting and varied designs, some with lots of tiny rooms, and some with long winding passages. Level 4 is arranged similarly to a noughts-and-crosses board. Level 8 has a room that looks suspiciously like a hand giving the middle finger. They’re easily the best level designs to this point, and I was really enjoying the process of mapping them until my character’s unceremonious death.

I don’t have many images in this post, so here’s one of a random tunnel..

I probably ran through about 50 character, most with terribly short lifespans. There are fifteen classes in Oubliette, but playing them all was more difficult than you would think, because a good number of them have strict requirements based on ability scores, race and gender. Before I get into all of the classes, I need to mention something that I forgot in my last post: this is the first CRPG to fully implement a class system. Most of the previous PLATO games started you as a hybrid warrior/spellcaster (pedit5, dnd, Orthanc) or allowed you to join a guild (Moria). This is the first that lets you choose a class at the beginning, and it’s a massive leap forward for character customisation.

I’m going to run through every class in the game below, and relay my meager experiences with them. There were a bunch that I was only able to play for about a minute, so I may not have much to say that’s useful.

Peasant: This is the baseline class of the game: it has no requirements whatsoever, so it’s a kind of fall-back option for when you roll terrible stats and can’t be bothered re-rolling. They don’t have any spells or special skills, and don’t get many hit points. I think their only benefit is that they gain levels faster than any other class, but it hardly seems worth it. The only peasants I played never survived beyond their first battle.

Cleric: Clerics need a Wisdom of 12, and have to be of Lawful alignment. (I’m not sure what effect alignment has on the game, but I suspect that it might determine what other characters you can team up with.) They can cast spells, dispel the undead, and the best weapon they can use is a mace. It’s all very Dungeons & Dragons. The clerics I played did quite well, although I never did advance one to 2nd level.  I made a lot of use of their light spell (MORPIC), as it has a permanent duration and reveals secret doors.  I tried to dispel some undead – skeletons and zombies, mostly – but never had any success.

Demondim: This class was no doubt inspired by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novel series, in which the demondim were an ancient race that spawned various nasties in that world. In Oubliette, they’re exactly like Clerics, except that they are restricted to Chaotic alignment.  It seems that the creators of Oubliette just took the name, and nothing else. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this class was a later addition to the game; the first Thomas Covenant book was published in 1978, and it should always be remembered that PLATO games were in constant development. The game that I’m playing is probably not the same as it was when first developed.)

Courtesan: Courtesans need a really high Charisma (19+), can’t be Lawful, and must be female. I found the class reasonably easy to qualify for as an Elf, but I didn’t survive long once I’d done so; they can’t wear armour better than leather, and don’t get many hit points. They can disarm the traps found on chests, but their main ability seems to be that they can “seduce” their foes. The documentation is unclear what this achieves, and the few times I tried it it didn’t work.

Hirebrand: Your basic fighter, and the only class that I had any success with. My best character (the unoriginally named “Habgab”, who succeeded his brothers Hobgob and Hubgub) was a 6th level Hobgoblin Hirebrand. They don’t get any special abilities, but they get loads of hit points and can use the best weapons and armour.  I managed to advance two Hirebrand characters to 6th level, but both died from poison.

Mage: They have low hit points, but can cast magic spells. I tried a couple of mages, but the sleep spells I cast (NARGOR) were ineffective. Needless to say, these characters died quickly.

Minstrel: Minstrels have requirements in every ability score, and it took me about half an hour of rerolling to qualify for the class. They can cast mage spells and wear chain mail armour, and they also have the ability to charm enemies with their music. Alas, as with many other classes in this game, I never got this ability to work, and I died quickly. I probably spent ten times as long rolling the character as I did playing him.

Ninja: Man, I was excited to play a Ninja, and it took me a looooong time to meet the requirements – every stat except for Charisma needs to be high. They can disarm traps and are immune to poison, but unfortunately they’re not that strong in combat. My Elf Ninja, despite sounding like a super-badass thing to play, was not long for the world.

Paladin: Paladins are super-difficult to qualify for: they must be Lawful, they must be male, and they require high scores in every stat except Dexterity. They can dispel undead like Clerics, and cast Cleric spells once they hit 9th level; they also get to use the best weapons and armour. My Paladin lasted a little while, but he didn’t have enough hit points to survive for long.

Ranger: I was stoked to try the Ranger, as they can cast both Cleric and Mage spells. I spent a good hour trying to qualify for the class, a task made more difficult by the requirement that they must be Human. Of course, what I didn’t realise was that Rangers don’t get spells until they’re 7th level, so I kind of wasted all that time. Do I even need to say that my Elf Ranger died quickly?

Raver: In the Thomas Covenant books, the Ravers are a trio of evil entities that can take possession of any creature. In Oubliette, they’re Paladins with a Chaotic alignment. This may be significant, because evil Paladins weren’t introduced to D&D until 1980. There’s always the caveat that PLATO games were in constant development, but it’s possible that the concept was introduced here first.

Thief: Thieves can disarm traps, and they can hide in combat. What they can’t do is fight very well, so my thief didn’t last long. I got through one fight by hiding while the Ninja companion I bought from the store killed everything, but in the next fight my hide skill failed and I was slaughtered by Undead Bears.

Sage: Sages are super-cool, in that they’re not all that hard to qualify for and they can cast both Mage spells and Cleric spells. I suspect that a high-level one would be really good to have in a party, but the one I created wasn’t viable as a solo adventurer. He died.

Samurai: Although this class is called a Samurai, it’s more like the traditional Monk class that you’ll find in later games: it can’t wear armour or use weapons, but its Armour Class drops every level, and its bare-handed damage is better than that of other classes. The best thing about them is that they get two attacks per round; killing two monsters at once is very satisfying whenever it happens. The class is hard to qualify for though, so I only played one. I enjoyed it for the short time the character was alive, though.

Valkyrie: Super-difficult to qualify for, with high stat restrictions and a requirement to be female (your gender is randomly determined along with your stats, which makes it even harder). They have good fighting ability, can cast Cleric spells at high level, and also get the same “seduce” ability of courtesans. It’s weird enough that the two female-only classes have seduction as a special ability, but the best armour that a Valkyrie can wear is a breast plate – let’s just say that the CRPG scene in the early days was not exactly the most mature. Anyway, the Valkyrie that I played lived for about five minutes, so I can’t say much else about it.

As you can see above, survival in this game is far from assured. I found that the best bet was to create a character with a high Constitution and Dexterity, and choose the Hirebrand class. A lot of hit points are essential, as is a high Dexterity for avoiding surprise. I liked to play as Hobgoblins; they had a high bonus to Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, as well as the ability to see in the dark.

Perhaps this character would be best served by returning to his farm.

Reading over the documentation (and some other notes on the fan-site I mentioned above) I’ve come across a bunch of other interesting things about the game that I never got to experience first-hand. I’ll run through some of them below, as well as some things I noticed myself while playing.

  • Apparently when you form a party your arrangement of characters makes a big difference, as only the first three characters can fight in melee. Monsters can even attack from the rear, which makes things potentially deadly for any mages and thieves in the back rank. It’s suggested that large parties have fighters at the front and back, which is a level of tactics far in excess of anything in CRPGs prior to this.
  • If you buy a companion that is a Mage or a Cleric, said companion will cast spells in battle. Apparently some Mage spells can catch you in their area of effect, so those companions aren’t really recommended.
  • I didn’t mention it above, but the last character I played was killed when an enemy hit him with a sleep spell. This was the point when I realised that there was nothing I could do to guarantee survival for a solo character, and quit the game for good.
  • The Patriarch’s Temple in Ligne Castle can be used to remove curses or identify magic items, but it requires a hefty donation before the Patriarch will see you. I tried it once, donating 12,000 gold pieces, and the bugger was still “too busy” to grant an audience. It didn’t stop the temple from pocketing my gold, though.
  • Higher-level characters spend a lot of time resting in hotels to regain hit points and spells. You can restore hit points at the House of Healing, but it costs a lot of gold. It wasn’t unusual for my 6th-level character to rest for over 200 days between dungeon forays. Characters in Oubliette age as well, and can presumably die when they get old enough. (And yes, different races have differing lifespans. This game thinks of everything.)
  • When you die, you can opt to either abandon your character or leave its body in the dungeon for others to find. You can pick those bodies up and return them to the Castle, or loot their gear, but I never found any. I suspect that, if there are any still there, they’ll be on the lower dungeon levels.
  • There is a large variety of magic items to be found in the dungeon, or bought at the magic shop. I found a scroll and a sword, but wasn’t able to identify either. The sword must have been cursed, because my character died as soon as I equipped it.
  • The dungeons don’t have any fixed encounters as such, but every level has a special room where the fights are tougher and the rewards greater. I found one of these on Level 1; that’s where I got the scroll mentioned above.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this game; there’s obviously much more to it than I’ve experienced. As such, I’m not entirely comfortable giving it a Final Rating, because there’s no way that I can do so accurately. Still, in the interests of comprehensiveness I’ll do so, and note that my experience of the game was incomplete.

Story & Setting: Oubliette has no story, beyond the presence of the dungeon and your character’s desire to loot it for treasure. Like most other PLATO games, it takes place entirely inside the dungeon, but I’m tempted to mark this higher because the levels are well-designed and full of tricks and traps. The lack of special encounters hurts it though, as does the absence of backstory. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are no NPCs in the game, although I suspect that lack was made up for by interacting with the other players. The monsters, on the other hand, are numerous, with a wide array of special abilities. Yes, they’re plucked straight out of the AD&D Monster Manual, but they’re well implemented, with lots of different weaknesses, resistances and special abilities. I’m disappointed that I never got to encounter more, but the ones I did find were consistent with their D&D counterparts: mages cast spells, centipedes can poison you, shadows are immune to normal weapons, etc. There’s no doubt that the monster selection and variety here is better than anything in any other PLATO CRPG. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Oubliette‘s dungeon is depicted from a first-person perspective, with wireframe walls and doors. The viewing window is – as it was in Moria – ridiculously small. The screen isn’t cluttered with character info like it was in Moria though, and the expanses of black on the screen make it feel suitably claustrophobic. And I do love that PLATO orange… Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: This might be the hardest category for me judge fairly. On the one hand there’s just so much stuff in the game: loads of monsters, an extensive selection of spells, tricks, traps, guilds, multiplayer options, the list goes on and I only saw a fraction of it. On the other hand, I found a lot of it frustratingly opaque. Combat was especially irritating, because the messages flash by almost too quickly to read. There were a number of occasions in which I died while just walking around, with no indication of what killed me. (Pits, as I later discovered.) So there’s a lot in the game, and much of it is well implemented, but there are things about it that annoyed me a lot. I’m going to split the middle here. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This game is lethal to the point of unplayability, but then again I wasn’t playing it as intended by the creators. If it were a solo game I’d give it the minimum rating and leave it at that, but I’m going to bump it up a point in acknowledgement that it’s really a multiplayer game. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The number of things appearing for the first time in a CRPG is staggering, and it would be impossible for me to name them all. There’s a definite debt that the game owes to Moria, but there’s plenty of originality on display as well. Oubliette was also massively influential on Wizardry, to the point where some have called Wizardry a rip-off. I wouldn’t go that far, but that’s a debate for another time. Wizardry is an influential CRPG in its own right, which makes Oubliette one of the most important games of the PLATO era. Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: This is the most purely subjective category in my rating system, and unfortunately, despite all of the innovative things about Oubliette, I didn’t have a great time with it. Most of the enjoyment I derived came from mapping. This would be a far different score if I’d been able to survive with any reliability, but as it is I have to mark the game low even though I know it’s probably unfair. Rating: 1 out of 7.

I’m going to award the bonus point to Oubliette, both because I recognise that I should have played it with other people, and because I’d like to go back to it at some point. The score above totals 22, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 44. That’s a respectable total, and puts it just below pedit5 and Orthanc, and well above Moria. I’ve no doubt it would have scored higher had I been able to experience more of it.

Next: It’s on to Aldebaran III (more well-known by its filename of A3 to those who know it at all), a text adventure created using the Wander system by the system’s originator Peter Langston. Langston’s first effort, Castle, involved the exploration of a castle, the rescuing of a prince and princess, and an awkwardly sexual ending. A3 is a sci-fi game, and from what I’ve played it really ups the ante as far as story-telling in adventures games goes. It’s also going to be a welcome change of pace to play something that’s not a stupidly large mainframe CRPG; I’m looking forward to it.

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